Thursday, March 13, 2008

After Spitzer; NY Reform, Take Two

Cross-posted from the Brennan Center blog

The painful personal tragedy involved in the Eliot Spitzer scandal is obvious, and for other forums. In the storm of frenzied tabloid attention, I hope we don't lose sight of the opportunity that has been lost for New York—and one that might be gained.

Albany is notoriously broken. When the Brennan Center looked at the legislative process in 2004, we deemed the legislature the nation's "most dysfunctional." In 2006 we checked again and found little progress. Our report on New York's campaign finance laws was entitled "Paper Thin." Trial court judges are chosen by a corrupt system struck down as unconstitutional after a two week trial, but eventually resuscitated by the Supreme Court. Still, one Justice called the system a "stupid law."

Eliot Spitzer vowed to change all that, and he did try to do just that. I saw it with my own eyes. He earnestly pushed for campaign reform, for example, and would not sign the pay raise lawmakers craved until they passed some modest contribution limits. The Brennan Center hosted him to speak to a private meeting of business and civic leaders last spring. He was compelling and convincing. He proposed strong redistricting reform and opposed the status quo on judicial selection. As we know, little came of this reform push even before this week. Relations between the governor and the legislature soured. The joke was, "It used to be that decisions were made by three men in a room. Now you can't get them in a room." Spitzer's progress was hindered, in fact, by the reliance on that very closed system. Negotiations were inevitably conducted in private, without much chance to build public support. As a result, little public outcry occurred. By year's end, reform energy had been well and thoroughly drained. Reformers were reduced to waiting for the long expected but never quite materialized Democratic takeover of the State Senate. The Spitzer era ends with Albany and New York politics essentially unchanged. The power brokers must be laughing.

There is a chance, though, for a new start. David Paterson comes from a special place: he was the leader of the minority in the state senate. The Senate Democrats were always the most enthusiastic for rules reform of any faction in state government. Paterson is now in a position to make progress, using his far smoother legislative relationships. But only if he steps up to the task. He should resist the temptation not to make waves. Sure, he has to consolidate his power. But he must also consciously don the mantle of reform agent, and show that his smooth style will work better than the steamroller. Everything didn't change on Day One—it never could. But Day One of the Paterson governorship is approaching. We hope it will be the beginning of a new, true, reform era. Day One, Take Two?

--Michael Waldman, Executive Director

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