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Michael Miller

Viewpoint

By Michael Miller
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Final Notes on a Fiasco

1. This is being written minutes after it was made official that Senator Pedro Espada is back with the State Senate Democrats, as the party’s floor leader, no less. Over the past several weeks, Democratic Senators made some public statements about Senator Espada that could not be written in this newspaper without checking with counsel. Senator Craig Johnson’s mass e-mails made several highly negative references to the “Espada Republicans.” Now, Democrats, Mr. Espada is all ours again, as Majority Leader.

 

2. What philosophy, values or political ideals were really at stake? In New York and many of its counties, there are two political parties: The Party in Power and The Party Not in Power. Without the appearance of control, people who must do business with the legislature become unclear about where to go, who to see and, most importantly, how to invest. The perception of power, of control, is vital to the continuation of power and of control. That is what this was all about.

3. A hundred years ago, I was given a special orientation by the Assembly Majority Leader, along with the six other legislative assistants to first-term Democratic members. He was emphatic on one point: “It is essential that we appear to be in control at all times.” It was the primary consideration of nearly all floor activity.

4. It was made clear to the assistants in the room that day that if our boss did something really out of line, we would be held accountable.

5. I know that some commentators suggest that the Senate breakdown will somehow help Governor Paterson politically. I don’t think so. Most will see him as part of the noise, unable to bring about any constructive conclusion. Worse, he has lowered respect for the law with his Lieutenant Governor maneuver, essentially cheating as a matter of convenience.

6. Disgraceful as their recent performance may be, and satisfying as it is to lash out at them, it is an awful precedent to withhold Senators’ paychecks when they don’t do what we want or meet expectations. Legislators could be punished for voting the wrong way or investigating the wrong state official. We stop their pay if the state budget is late, but that has a logic, and it used to be that most state employees didn’t get paid if the budget was overdue, or were paid in scrip.

7. In 1965, leadership fights prevented both the Senate and the Assembly from organizing for six weeks, an infamous fiasco that scarred a generation of legislative Democrats. There are some striking similarities between the 1965 and the 2009 legislative disasters. The 1965 situation was worse on some levels, and there have been other serious stalemates throughout the last century, but 2009 was so frustrating because it came just as the session was peaking and legislation was starting to really roll.

8. At one point during the 1965 stalemate, reporters in the Capitol came across Nassau County Democratic leader John F. English threatening to punch out Manhattan Dem leader Ray Jones.

9. After the 1936 elections, Republicans retained a slim 76 to 74 majority in the State Assembly. W. Kingsland Macy, the longtime Republican boss (“King”) of Suffolk County, was having one of his feuds with the state party leadership, which was dominated by the Nassau Republicans. He organized a revolt and eight Republican Assemblymen refused to vote to re-elect Irving Ives, future U.S. Senator, as Speaker. After six days and eight official ballots, a compromise was reached within the Republican conference and Ives gave up the Speakership in favor of Majority Leader Oswald Heck. On the day of the ninth roll call, four Republican Assemblymen were absent due to illness, leaving Heck short. As a gesture of good faith and for the sake of getting public business done in the midst of an economic crisis, Democratic leader Irving Steingut and six other Democrats hid out in the Capitol, so that Heck was elected Speaker by 72 votes to 67 votes, a majority of those present and voting.

10. Steingut consistently had 74 consistent votes and could have grabbed the Speakership for the rest of the year. He didn’t. Steingut and his conference were widely praised. Who shall we praise in 2009?

Michael Miller is a freelance writer, designer and strategic consultant who has worked in state and local government. He lives in New Hyde Park.

Michael Miller is a freelance writer, designer and strategic consultant who has worked in state and local government. Email: millercolumn@optimum.net