Who will be Nassau County's presiding officer? A decision that was supposed to occur last week is still up in the air and will probably not be made until sometime in the upcoming weeks due to current seat holder Judy Jacobs' political maneuver to block a fellow legislator's attempts to oust her.
On Jan. 3, just hours before the 19-member legislature was expected to elect current Deputy Presiding Officer Roger Corbin (2nd L.D.) to the helm, Jacobs changed her party registration from Democrat, which she has been for nearly 50 years, to unaffiliated and won an injunction from State Supreme Court Judge Roy Mahon that temporarily prevented the vote from taking place. As a result, both sides appeared before acting State Supreme Court Judge Antonio Brandveen on Jan. 4 and, at the request of Jacobs' lawyers, had the case postponed until later this week.
Jacobs' actions stemmed from another political move made late last month by Corbin, fellow Democrat Legislator Lisanne Altmann (10th L.D.) and Republican Minority Leader Peter Schmitt (12th L.D.). At this time, a bipartisan coalition was formed to unseat Jacobs and elect Corbin as presiding officer for the "betterment of Nassau County residents," they said. Nassau County GOP Chairman Joe Mondello also agreed to back Corbin for the presiding officer seat.
Jacobs, in a telephone interview with Anton Newspapers, said she was prompted to change her party status because she "felt pretty disgusted with the idea that both parties - two members from one party and the Republican Party - were both seemingly willing to forget about their roots, forget about everything else around, forget about the fact that the voters had elected us to lead and throw all of that to the wind. To tell you the truth, I would rather be unaffiliated and do what is right for the people of Nassau County."
She added, "There is a bottom line here. In my estimation, when the people of Nassau County have spoken, they elected the majority of Democrats to lead this county and they expect that the democratic majority will choose its own majority leader. They do not expect the minority to be able to not only choose their leader, but our leader and all of staffing as well and that is exactly what was taking place."
As a result of Jacobs' party switch, Republican legislators, along with Corbin and Altmann, did not attend the legislature's first meeting of 2006 and are refusing to vote until Jacobs' party affiliation is settled. "Her party change won't be ruled legal," said Schmitt. "We're not doing a thing until the court clarifies her political affiliation."
According to GOP leaders, the coalition was formed in an effort to provide both parties with a fair opportunity at being heard. Schmitt stated that the "Democratic majority on the legislature is fractured" and that, under Jacobs' leadership, it has been "reduced to a rubber stamp" for County Executive Tom Suozzi.
Under county charter, the 19 legislators vote for presiding officer and minority leader at the start of each legislative term. The lawmaker who receives the most votes becomes presiding officer while the one from a different party with the second most votes becomes minority leader; deputy presiding officer is then appointed by the presiding officer. Through the formation of the coalition, Corbin was hoping to receive enough votes among Democrats and Republicans to garner the presiding officer seat and stated publicly that he would select Altmann as his deputy.
If approved by the court, Jacobs' change in party status, however, could provide her with the second-highest number of votes needed to secure the legislature's minority leader seat (currently held by Schmitt) if the remaining eight Democrats (Corbin and Altmann excluded) support her.
Lawyers for Corbin and GOP lawmakers, however, are arguing that since, under state law, a change in party enrollment does not become effective until after the next general election, the change to unaffiliated would not matter in this case because Jacobs would have to remain a Democrat until November 2006. "It's legal to switch one's party, but it doesn't take affect, according to [state] law, until the first Tuesday following the November election. The impact of what has been done is an 11th hour trickery in an attempt to do party shopping, which is unfortunate and also unlawful," said Fred Brewington, a Democratic attorney representing Corbin.
He added, "In this situation, I don't see how there can be any benefit from what Ms. Jacobs has done at this point. Whether or not it goes one way or another, she has already abandoned the Democratic Party for her own personal benefit."
Jacobs' lawyer Steven Schlesinger, however, is publicly defending his client's right to change party affiliation any time she wants. According to the attorney, there is a clear first amendment right in the Constitution stating someone can form political alliances, join groups, etc. and government cannot interfere with one's right to free association. Inherent in one's right to free association, said Schlesinger, is their right to not associate.
"If I go from Democrat to Republican, [New York State's election law enrollment stature] says the change is not effective until after the next election because one has to go through the whole primary season. If I change today, I couldn't vote in a primary. Delaying my ability to vote in the other party's primary is a legitimate purpose," Schlesinger said. "Judy is not trying to do anything like that. She is not trying to change her enrollment to vote in a Republican primary. She is not changing it to vote in the other party's primary. She is merely saying, 'I was a candidate of the Democratic Party, the Independence Party and the Working Families Party at the last election and, as a member of the legislature, rather than represent only one of the three parties, I choose to represent no parties and represent all the voters.' This has no bearing on the purpose of the New York election law statute."
He added, "How can the New York Election Law be read to prevent her from exercising her right not to be associated with any one political party when she was elected by three? I think there is a serious issue as to whether or not that statute should be construed that way. I am not saying that statute is unconstitutional, I am saying that to construe the statute to prevent someone who was elected by three parties to remain a member of only one party is unconstitutional as applied to this narrow issue."
When asked if she thought Republican legislators would still support Corbin if her party status to unaffiliated was approved, Jacobs said, "The matter is in litigation so there is not much that I can say and also I can't speak for what they are thinking. We will see what happens. It is up to the courts now to tell us if we are going to be successful or not." She added, "It is important to know that I am always motivated by integrity and by awareness of the people who have voted for me. I know that you don't fly in the face in what the electorate has asked you to do. Any move or decisions that I have made or will make in the future are entirely based on what I believe is best for the electorate and for the future. My concern is my status, my leadership position, making certain that seven Democrats and myself are not disenfranchised from what our rights are. I made this decision to make that right."
Jacobs, however, is hopeful the court will rule in her favor. "It is in the court's hands, but we feel that we have a very strong case. Hopefully we will be successful in returning the decision making to the proper places - that the Democratic majority leader will be chosen by the Democratic caucus, the Republican minority leader will be chosen by the Republican caucus and the rules and regulations are obviously adopted by us together. That is the way it should be done, that is the way that is has been done and anything less than that is really stepping on toes of the rights of the citizens of the county," she said.
Brewington added, "Mr. Corbin and Ms. Altmann have done what everybody has been talking about - trying to get a bipartisan government working for the benefit of Nassau County. As soon as they are able to do this and show everybody can work together, as was intended by the charter, they are demonized and that's a shame."
Altmann, Corbin and Jacobs have all been Democratic lawmakers on the Nassau County Legislature since its inception in 1995; the Democrats obtained the majority in 2000.
All parties are expected to return to court Jan. 12. At that time, a full record will be produced for the judge to review. Regardless of the outcome, Jacobs will remain legislator of the 16th L.D.