Break their iron grip


MARCH 5, 2007
    After 42 years in the minority, New York State’s Senate Democrats were becoming emboldened. Craig Johnson’s Feb. 6 win of a vacated Republican seat on Long Island put them with a hairsbreadth of taking back control of the state Senate within two years. It also sparked talk among Albany Democrats about “inducing” several Republicans to switch parties, thereby handing the Democrats an instant majority.
    Those hopes may have been set back last week, when Brooklyn Senate Democrat Carl Kruger accepted Republican majority leader Joe Bruno’s offer to chair the Senate’s Social Services Committee — a job that comes with a $12,500 stipend. This game of party “bait-and-switch” has a long and dishonorable history. The senate Republican majority has played it for years. In 2002, when I was a Democratic state senator, Bruno and Gov. George Pataki offered me “inducements” — and a safe seat — to support Bruno as majority leader. I replied that my principles determine my party affiliation, not the other way around, and rejected their gifts.
    Enlisting legislators to change parties is a crafty way to avoid hard-fought elections. It also perpetuates Albany’s reputation as the nation’s most dysfunctional state capital. Such maneuvers only deepen New Yorkers’ disgust with their leaders’ obsession with amassing and keeping power for their own sake, rather than doing the people’s work. Instead of clinging to the status quo, state Senate Democrats and Republicans should follow the lead of national congressional leaders in the 2006 and 1994 midterm elections and offer a detailed program of legislative reforms.
    Step one would be breaking the leadership’s lock on legislative procedures. The Senate and Assembly desperately need a healthy committee system that lets party caucuses select chairs and staff, and permits open debate.
    Today, party leaders control these choices with an iron fist — only allowing committee hearings and debates when they see fit. This often lets waste and mismanagement remain buried — and explains why there have been few, if any, bills enacted without the leaders’ approval.
    Senators and Assembly members of both parties must also vow to create an impartial redistricting process. The leaders in each house now control the process, and they draw district lines to keep their majorities. The result is flagrant gerrymandering that virtually guarantees job security for legislators who support their leaders.
    If Democrats should win a majority in the state Senate, they must not treat their Republican colleagues as minority parties are treated today in both legislative houses. Allocations for Albany and district offices, staff and equipment should not be doled out as perks. Allocations should be equal for all members and committees.
    The greatest barrier to change in Albany is legislative leaders’ fears they will lose power if members rise up and begin making their own decisions. But Albany will only be reformed when all legislators demonstrate their true faith in democracy.
    Seymour P. Lachman, distinguished professor of government at Wagner College, is a former New York state senator and author, with Robert Polner, of “Three Men in a Room: The Inside Story of Power and Betrayal in an American Statehouse.”