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On Reform and Recent History

October 17, 2010

We are going to make a provocative comment and then try our best to focus on a critical issue that we hope comes up in tomorrow’s gubernatorial debate.

But before you read any further, please remember that you enjoy a contrarian view. You find it novel and stimulating. And that is why you visit this site.

So here is the comment: Eliot Spitzer was the only governor in the last 20 years with a real vision for making state government more accountable and responsive.

(Go back and re-read the second paragraph if you feel your blood pressure spiking.)

How can we possibly say such a thing about the Disgraced One? Well, let’s go back to January 1, 2007:

Spitzer believes that the comfortable majorities in the respective houses of the legislature are protecting the status quo. He is convinced that he will never get the sweeping reform he wants until he narrows the margins.

So he breaks with the live-and-let-live approach that has characterized relations between governors and legislative leaders for decades. He woos members of Joe Bruno’s conference to join his administration. He campaigns aggressively in special sessions called to fill the empty seats. He tries to flip other members of Bruno’s conference.

Now here’s another statement sure to confound and inflame: Spitzer’s efforts weren’t partisan. That is the way it was portrayed, but he didn’t give a damn about party politics. He just wanted reform. In fact, he was more comfortable ideologically with Bruno than Shelly Silver.

He went after the Assembly for reneging on an agreement to pick a qualified comptroller in the wake of the Hevesi resignation.

Spitzer was convinced that if he applied direct political pressure to the houses, he could push through his reforms. He did just that, and didn’t think he was doing something outrageous at all:

“How ossified has this system become that campaigning in lawmakers’ home districts is considered shocking and taboo?” he said.

Spitzer’s ultimate goal was campaign finance reform. And the lawmakers were shocked by that: “Why is he pushing campaign finance reform? Nobody cares about that. People want him to focus on jobs.”

Lawmakers were right. Polls at the time didn’t even register campaign finance reform in the top ten.

But for Spitzer, campaign finance reform was the key to competitive elections, which were the key to a more responsive legislature, which were the key to enacting government reforms, which were the key to spending controls and economic reforms.

“First comes government reform, then sweeping reform to restructure the economy,” Spitzer said.

Now say whatever you want about Spitzer. Criticize him for arrogance, hypocrisy, immorality, for having a flawed strategy and glass jaw and on and on – all probably correct. But recognize that at that particular moment, he had a plan and strategy for change. He was at least trying.

We now know that having a narrow majority in the State Senate is no panacea.

In fact, an unstable narrow majority is more of a recipe for gridlock than having a comfortably entrenched majority. But again, back in 2007, Spitzer’s construct was not outrageous. In fact, there was some logic to it.

Fast forward to January 1, 2011. What is Andrew Cuomo’s vision for making state government more responsive and accountable? How will he engage Shelly Silver and Tom Libous, who will both have comfortable majorities? Does he do a Spitzer? Does he revert to the nonaggression approach of previous governors, including his father?

If there was a real debate tomorrow night and we were moderating, we’d be pressing Cuomo for some sense of his plans and strategy. There’s been absolutely no discussion of this, but given the lessons of the past and the stakes for the future, isn’t it something we should be talking about?

One Comment leave one →
  1. societax permalink
    October 17, 2010 3:45 PM

    “We now know that having a narrow majority in the State Senate is no panacea.”

    And why would you have thought that it would be? Reform requires that elected officials be responsive to anyone but themselves, and that they genuinely be subject to possibility of being replaced in competitive elections. Even this year, that threat isn’t really the situation. Unfortunately, as distasteful as they might be, only term limits are sufficient to disrupt NY legislative politics, and they should be phased in progressively across the state, so that the entire legislature is not replaced en masse in one year (e.g., via three elections over six years, one third at a time, with perhaps a four-term limit).

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