The witty columnist who wrote for several Texas
papers after being shown the door by The New York Times left
this good earth in 2007. During one particularly racy period in her
tenure in the Lone Star State, she got to write about, consecutively,
Gov. Ann Richards and then Gov. George W. Bush, whom Ivins dubbed
Yet it was the Texas State Legislature,
“the Lege,” as she affectionately called it, that most caught her
attention. She found the Lege to be an endless source for tales of
corruption, pettiness and belly laughs.
New York state, which has been ceding population to the
Southwest for decades, can now stake its claim to have bested Texas for
the title of class clown among state Legislatures. Sorry, Molly. Last
week the state capital bore witness to one of the strangest political
dances since the concept of representative democracy was invented. If
politics is considered warfare by other means, then this is comedy by
Let’s recap. Democrats have controlled
the state Assembly for ages, and have been in the minority in the
Senate since the 1970s. They turned the tables in November and took
control of the Senate, in large part due to the victory of Darrel
Aubertine in northern New York. The Dems promised reform, and New York
City-based majority leader Malcolm Smith appointed a Central New York
senator, Dave Valesky, as his No. 2, charging him specifically with
shepherding reform legislation through the upper house.
The Democrats labored mightily yet
birthed very little. Valesky’s protests aside, the committee on reform
which he co-chaired made laudable recommendations, but in the end those
ideas were treated as mere suggestions by his Democratic superiors and
as toxic by the Republican opposition. The power of the majority leader
remained near absolute, as was clearly demonstrated when push came to
shove at budget time. The Assembly and the Senate stood at parade rest
while Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, Gov. David Paterson and Smith
held the budget sessions behind closed doors.
It was once again the much-maligned
system of three men in a room, all of them from New York City, deciding
the fate of the state for the coming year. Promises of reform and
equity were left shredded like OTB tickets on the floor of a betting
parlor after the last race has been run.
the usual cast of felons and near-felons played in the shadows. Former
Majority Leader Joe Bruno had barely exited the Senate when the feds
slapped a corruption indictment on him. Disgraced former Gov. Eliot
Spitzer went down in a big hurry when his predilection for pricey
prostitutes made him the talk of the tabloids. All this was almost
enough to make you forget that just two years ago Democratic State
Comptroller Alan Hevesi was forced to resign and plead guilty to
defrauding the public.
The only thing the parties can seem to agree on is corruption.
Last week the balance of power shifted
from three men in a room to one man standing in the lobby. That man,
Tom Golisano, chairs the board of Paychex, and recently announced that
he was moving to Florida to avoid paying taxes he didn’t want the
Empire State to impose upon his millions.
Instead he showed up, implicitly waving
rolls of cold cash outside the chamber as the Republican leadership
announced that it had the votes to take control of the Senate. The Dems
turned out the lights, adjourned the session and fled the premises.
Smith’s chief of staff, Angelo Aponte, who turns out to have been my
high school gym teacher, holds the keys to the chamber, and the state
Legislature remains under lockdown days into the proceedings. Gay
marriage? Property tax relief? All those shovel-ready projects? They
can wait while the dance of power goes on.
Golisano, who has long hoped to change
New York politics with his big bag of cash, is widely seen as the
mastermind behind the coup. He teamed up with the Republicans to lure
two of the Senate’s most undesirable members—one indicted for slashing
his girlfriend and the other charged with misusing campaign funds—into
crossing party lines. Pedro Espada of the Bronx, who has two cases of
campaign finance violations pending, and Hiram Monserrate of Queens,
whose girlfriend, it is only fair to say, defends him by saying that it
was an accident when he cut her with a broken glass, joined the power
grab and waved the banner of reform. Monserrate later thought better of
it and switched back to the Democrats, leaving the Senate deadlocked at
31-31 with no tie breaker in sight.
In Orwellian doublespeak, the
Republicans chose to call their coup a coalition. That is about as
meaningful as Bush’s notion of a coalition of nations invading Iraq.
Golisano and the Republicans picked the two most vulnerable Democrats,
one facing criminal charges and the other under an ethical cloud big
enough to cause lake effect, and offered them a way out. Their claims
to be supporting reform might have some credibility if they hadn’t just
voted down the recommendations of Valesky’s reform committee.
Perhaps our own local senator, John
DeFrancisco, unintentionally said it best when asked on day one of the
coup about the shady reputations of the two men who briefly put him
back on top in the brawl that is now paralyzing Albany. “There have
been no convictions,” said DeFrancisco (R-50th). He was referring to
the presumption of innocence that should be afforded Monserrate and
Espada, but his words also rang true for the whole enterprise in
Albany, devoid of conviction, devoid of leadership, filling us only
If you made this stuff up, nobody would believe it. Molly, where are you when we need you?
Read Ed Griffin-Nolan’s commentary every week in the Syracuse New Times.
Leading by example: Dean Skelos (left) with state
Sen. John A. DeFrancisco have found themselves on the brink of a
majority with a little help from their friends. MICHAEL DAVIS PHOTO