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A New World in the Assembly

March 24, 2015

For 20 years, Sheldon Silver ran the Assembly in a way that was competent, but also aloof and autocratic. He was firmly in charge. Everything had to come through him. His power wasn’t unlimited, but it was pervasive. Silver could pretty much “roll” anyone. The exception was when two or three members came to him together and made a good case. This was particularly true of senior members who knew how to approach him and talk to him in a way that was restrained and respectful.

This isn’t to say that Silver arbitrarily imposed himself. No, he had a sense of what was right for the institution. Even if you didn’t like him, you recognized that he was thinking strategically for the conference.

With Silver suddenly gone, everything in the chamber changed. At first, members were stunned.  But then they began to assert themselves. They said: “This is my program area. I’ve been working this issue for ten years. I know the topic better than anyone and the conference ought to respect my views on the matter.”

This is what’s happening in the Assembly right now. Members are empowered. They have relevance. They are challenging leadership and challenging each other.

Speaker Heastie isn’t rolling people. In fact, he has encouraged this flowering of democracy within the conference.

And it’s a good thing. It’s a beautiful thing that probably should have happened a long time ago. This can be said now: Wasn’t it truly bizarre that Silver – strategic, cautious, stodgy Shelly Silver – exercised such control and held on for so long?  The conference had something like a 40 percent turnover in the last five years. There were scores of new members, but it was still being run like it was the 1980s.

But it’s a New Word now. And the New World has really complicated matters for the Governor and the Senate in this budget cycle. In this regard, it’s really not three men in a room anymore – it’s Cuomo, Skelos and 109 Assembly Democrats.

To his credit, Cuomo seems to get it. He’s come off his hard line on policy initiatives and is giving the Assembly its say and its due. This is being portrayed by some as “retreating” or “back-pedaling,”  but it’s really the only thing he can do under the circumstances.

This is, after all, more proper and typical functioning of a legislative body. Yes, it’s going to be chaotic at times. In fact, it’ll probably be raucous – and we hope it is. The more so the better. We hope the Assembly chamber turns into Parliament with a lot of tell-it-like-it-is shouting and posturing. We wish Cuomo would go before the Assembly to defend his policies on education and other matters. That’d be something to see.

What will be lost moving forward is some of the strategic positioning of the Assembly Democrats, but what could be gained is vitality, creativity and idealism.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. March 24, 2015 9:37 PM

    Actually we don’t want it like a parliament because that’s what we’ve just gotten rid of; the lockstep discipline of the Ds. The sideshow of prime minster’s questions is amusing but hardly represents the discipline exerted over rank & file members by the government. I’m less sanguine about the NYS Assembly and haven’t popped any champagne corks over how the institution’s been restored. I’ll hold off until I see the effects in terms of substantive committee hearings, conference committees, debates on the floor, the extent to which any bill brought to the floor fails (this is getting rolled by the way, not how you describe it in your piece), and greater transparency in the legislative process.

  2. A Disgruntled Dem permalink
    March 25, 2015 12:28 AM

    The author(s) of this blog must be all male. Only men would suggest that three (or 4) men in a room is the same as having a woman there. It’s not. Most definitely not to a feminist like myself. Andrea Stewart-Cousins continue to be excluded even as a man representing only a handful of legislators has had a seat at the table. In essence, the menfolk ignored the Senate Dems leadership vote and ANOINTED Senator Klein their de facto leader. That’s dirty pool. It’s also juvenile. Maybe the boys are afraid that they’ll get cooties if a girl enters their clubhouse. One expects better from supposedly progressive men (like Cuomo and Heastie), but things really haven’t changed all that much.

    Note the pattern here. If white men are forced to loosen their grip ever so slightly and share power with a (1) non-white man or a (2) woman (black, white, or any color of the rainbow), they will likely choose a man. Hence, Obama was given the Democratic nod over Hillary and Klein has trumped Andrea Stewart-Cousins. This crap does get old….

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