In politics, change is good. Even change for the sake of change. I believe in term limits. Nothing is worse for democracy than a political system in which incumbents are so entrenched they're untouchable. It creates an atmosphere in which special interests flourish at the expense of citizens and taxpayers.
We desperately need change in Albany. Our state legislative process has been hijacked by partisan politics, special interests and backroom deals. It's been this way for so long, we barely think twice about it any more. Legendary is the phenomenon of the "three men in a room" deciding our fate: the governor, the speaker of the assembly and the president of the senate. The leadership of each chamber of the state legislature calls the shots. Bills introduced without leadership approval go nowhere. Bills introduced by a member of the minority party without a majority member cosponsor? Fuggedaboudit.
In this system, it benefits us citizens to have an entrenched incumbent who's a member of the majority party representing our district in Albany. As far as that's concerned, we here in the First District are in the catbird's seat. We've got a senator whose tenure stretches back more than 30 years, who is a member of the senate's ruling party (Republican). And we've got an assemblyman who is likewise a member of the assembly's ruling party (Democrat); though he's new to the job, as long as he keeps his nose clean and his trousers zipped, he's probably got the job for life. That's just how it goes.
I've got no ax to grind where State Senator Ken LaValle is concerned. His heart is in the right place. He's compassionate and caring, smart and articulate. And though we don't always agree about everything, I like the man. I'm sorry to have to hold him up as an example of what's wrong with the system.
Ken LaValle is so entrenched, the Democrats aren't even bothering to run anyone against him this year. Just as well. Nearly every candidate they've put up to "challenge" the incumbent for the last two decades has been a joke. Or a fill-in -- somebody, anybody, just to have a name on the ballot. So why bother? This year, the Democrats took a pass. They say they're concentrating on an incumbent they perceive to be more vulnerable to a challenge by a strong Democratic candidate. (Brookhaven Supervisor Brian Foley is running against incumbent senator Cesar Trunzo.) Why waste money -- even a minimal amount -- running a race against Ken LaValle? But really, the Democrats haven't had a serious horse in this race for 20 years or more.
When incumbents are untouchable, they don't have to worry about spending time, effort or money getting re-elected. But they still raise funds for their campaigns. Because they can. Lobbyists seeking to curry favor with the legislature are all too eager to grease the skids with the parties in power, filling their candidates' campaign coffers with dough. In the first six months of this year, Mr. LaValle raised $62,625 from corporations, partnerships and political action committees, and another $14,455 from individuals. (He had $135,260 on hand at the end of the reporting period.) Our senator, as a senior member of the Republican caucus, has a fair amount of clout in Albany, and that makes him valuable to people who want something out of the state legislature.
Without a real need to spend serious money on their campaigns, incumbents use these campaign accounts as handy little slush funds to pay a variety of expenses: cell phone service, breakfasts, lunches and dinners out, lodging, floral arrangements, certificates and plaques, gasoline, and, of course, tickets to fundraisers for other candidates, political committees or charitable causes. Our own senator spent a total of about $18,000 out of his campaign account on such items during the first six months of 2008, according to his campaign committee's disclosure report on file with the state board of elections. (Included: $8,650 on tickets and contributions, $5,274 on restaurant tabs, $1,600 on cell phone service, $1,028 on flowers and $1,437 on plaques and awards.) The money is well spent from a politician's perspective. His contributions spread good will among his constituents. Tickets bought with his campaign cash allow him to attend events -- to be seen and get his name out there. It's political capital. And it goes a long way to ensure that an incumbent like Ken LaValle remains untouchable.
Expenditures on these kinds of items by the campaign committee for Assemblyman Marc Alessi, a relative newbie, pale in comparison: $144 on restaurant tabs; $370 on cell phone service; and $1,060 in tickets and contributions, not including a $2,000 donation from his campaign account to the Independence Party. Mr. Alessi took in $54,415 and spent $15,700 in the first six months of this year, and showed a closing balance of $43,821 on his July periodic report.
But there are perks for us in having a powerful incumbent like Mr. LaValle representing our district. He knows how to bring home the bacon. A senior incumbent Republican in the State Senate gets a big chunk of bacon to bring home, too. Mr. LaValle doled out nearly $2.2 million in "member items" this year. "Member items" are funds members of the assembly and senate can distribute however they see fit. The amount a member gets is determined by which party he's in and how much seniority he's got. Gov. Paterson, searching for ways to close the state's budget gap, wants to eliminate "member items" in next year's budget, saving the state about half a billion dollars. Fat chance. These payments to organizations and community groups also are an important source of political capital for incumbents. When a politician has more than $2 million to spread around his district among key constituent groups, he can win a lot of loyalty. No way the legislators will let that fountain of good will dry up.
There are so many systemic ailments in our system, I find it difficult to get too excited about any one candidate, especially a candidate for executive office, no matter how convincing a case for change he or she makes. If elected, they still have to deal with the legislature, and without true campaign finance reform and term limits in place, the legislature is, more or less, a permanent government, beholden not to the voters but to the people who fund their campaign accounts to keep the system going: special interest groups and business entities looking for a return on their investment -- and that may not necessarily be in the best interests of the people.
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