The Judicial Ruling – A Bummer for Conservatives

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Let’s put on bow on this series of pieces on the ruling that has rocked the state election process.

And let’s ask this question: What do you do when one of the tricks of your trade gets trashed? The Monroe County Conservative Party – and more specifically its chairman Tom Cook (2nd from left) – ought to ask themselves this now.

A U.S. District Court judge has ruled that New York’s system of conventions and delegates to elect state Supreme Court judges is unconstitutional. This is bad news for the third party Conservatives.

And you don’t even have to believe the testimony in that case by former Rochester City Court Judge John Regan. In the case, Regan said that he was blocked for a state Supreme Court judge nomination as a Republican because Republicans in Monroe County allowed the Conservative Party to name the GOP’s state Supreme Court judicial candidates. It’s something Monroe County GOP Chairman Steve Minarik denies.

So let’s put that aside for a moment. Tom Cook and the Conservatives have made their political bones in these parts by being brokers of sorts. They would give their third party line to a candidate from either party. And that made their party line more valuable, especially when the race could be tight. I have argued that in recent years Cook’s Conservative Party has been more reluctant to give any nod to local Democrats. But Cook’s power-broker image remains relatively intact.

An important cog in this machine is a rule in New York State Election Law that goes by the name of Wilson-Pakula. It’s a part of the law that says to run on a party line, you must be enrolled in that party. If you are not, than the party leadership must allow you to run in the party. It’s called getting a Wilson-Pakula. The chair of that party plays a big part in giving such permission to outsiders. And when it comes to third parties, the chair can be the sole designator.

There is an important exception to this Wilson-Pakula, however – judicial races.

That’s why you could see the oddity of Linda Lohner Pilato, a  Republican, run for the Democratic nod last September in the Rochester City Court race. There is no need for a leadership approval in judicial contests. Just get the necessary names on petitions.

That gets us to state Supreme Court. And if you read the previous pieces in this space, you know that the unique style of parties naming their candidates – through a judicial convention – nullifies any real primary.

So whoever Cook and the Conservatives name as their candidate for state Supreme Court, stands.

But U.S. District Court Judge John Gleeson changed all that. He has put a stop to the convention system and called for a primary (at least until the New York State Legislature takes up the matter and decides on a new system of electing these judges – or opts to make them appointees).

The ramifications are big for a third party that wants to remain looking big. Now Cook and the Conservatives could see challenges to their preferred candidates for state Supreme Court. That means a challenger from any party could announce they are running and they could win.

That sure does reduce the power-brokering ability of the Conservative Party and Mr. Cook. And it does work to reshape Monroe County’s political landscape a bit.

Exempt Upstate?

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Next week Sandy Parker travels to Buffalo to spread her "Unshackle Upstate" message. Kent Gardner from the Center for Governmental Research will join Parker at the Buffalo Niagara Partnership discussion ($25 a ticket).

The topic at the Buffalo talk: Can Upstate be granted freedom from strangling state policies?

Words like "unshackle" and phrases like "freedom from strangling state policies" really means something else.

Exempt Upstate.

Parker calls for giving the Upstate region a waiver from laws that keep business from coming here. Policies like uncapped workers compensation benefits… the Wicks Law… the Scaffold Law. She is hoping this exemption idea will become all the rage.

Parker would prefer to have the New York State Legislature repeal or reform measure like this statewide. But she doesn’t think state lawmakers (meaning downstate Assembly members) will embrace it. So, she suggests, give the economically distressed regions of New York a pass from the problematic laws on the books (For a refresher on her comments, go back to this MP3 of her interview on WXXI’s Need to Know).

Yet wouldn’t this exemption plan be just as unpalatable to state lawmakers as full reform? Wouldn’t this divide a state that’s already got a split personality? Wouldn’t this further fuel the folks on the fringe who want to split up New York into two states marking the boundary at Rockland and Putnam counties?

Besides, lawmakers would pass on creating two sets of rules in one New York, wouldn’t they? Maybe not.

"There would be some interest by a number of legislators" for the idea, said Assemblyman Joe Morelle, a Democrat from Irondequoit, who is also the Monroe County Democratic Party chairman.

Morelle said there is plenty of precident for treating some areas of the state differently than others. They range from small rules – like allowing right on red at stop lights everywhere except New York City – to larger concepts like Empire Zones, where more concentrated, distressed areas are allowed to give tax breaks and incentives.

He predicts that there could be some bills introduced in state legislature for upstate exemptions to state regulations.

Why?

"(The state’s) tax structure doesn’t have the kind of drag on New York City business as it does on Upstate," Morelle said. "It’s hard not to acknowledge that it’s vastly different to live in New York City as it is to live Upstate."

And, Morelle said, the economic indicators Upstate may just force Albany to look at other ideas.

Would exemption work? Well, it sounds a bit like the tax break syndrome that New York has long been in. I don’t have the stamina to look up just when the series of laws that created tax break programs and tax reduced zones began. But ask any New York legislator why all these tax giveaways are necessary and the answer you will get (on an honest day) is – since New York isn’t about to really cut taxes and spending, the tax breaks are needed just to keep pace with other states.

Once Upstate got exemptions from "onerous business laws," it would be hard to dislodge them. If the exemptions are perceived as working, upstate legislators and business people would say don’t change the system. If they aren’t, then you might hear that removing them would only make matters worse.

Perhaps, however, there is a more subtle reason for the Upstate exemption talk. Maybe it’s a kind of political gambit to inject Upstate’s plight into the upcoming gubernatorial and state legislative elections.

All in all a discussion like this can’t hurt – especially if it involves people like Eliot Spitzer, Bill Weld and the other gubernatorial wannabes.

The best course would be that this exempt Upstate talk leads to talks about reforms statewide that can truly aid the economy. Otherwise we might just want to carve the place up.

The Untouchable Judges

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Perhaps the upheaval of judicial elections, thanks to a recent court ruling, might finally provide an excuse to decide whether we want our judiciary elected or appointed.

One could only hope.

You’ve already read how a U.S. District Court ruling has deemed unconstitutional New York’s system of electing state Supreme Court judges. (If you haven’t take a peek).

The 77 page decision by U.S. District Court Judge John Gleeson laid out a number of arguments for keeping in place the closed process of delegates and conventions for judges (arguments Gleeson ultimately rejected).

Among the arguments was this: The current system "insulates" sitting Supreme Court judges from voter retribution for unpopular decisions. The current system, the argument goes, gives the incumbent judge a level of independence from the whims of politics.

In other words, judges don’t have to act like common candidates. They don’t have to explain their actions… or convince a majority of the public that those actions were warranted.

It’s as if they weren’t really candidates at all.

They’d be like appointees. And political appointment of judges is hardly political, right? Just ask Samuel Alito.

This line of thinking reminds me of the arguments a few years back when the topic was whether judicial candidates should adhere to a code of conduct that keeps them from speaking about their views, their beliefs.

The Commission on Judicial Conduct, a state organization that enforces ethical standards on New York’s judiciary, mandates that judicial candidates aren’t to campaign in a partisan and political manner – only set out their qualifications to be a judge.

That became news in 2003 after an Albany judge challenged the commission for sanctioning him (check out the story here). Since that time, the challenge by Thomas Spargo, is losing as it goes up the judicial ladder.

But the bigger issue is this: Do we want these judges elected or not?

If they are candidates for office, why have an election that shields them from unpopular judicial decisions? Why is there a code of conduct that muzzles them from speaking about their views?

If we don’t want them to act like candidates – then don’t elected them.

If we want the voters to have a say, then can we please unshackle them?

Let’s stop with this hideous hybrid that serves no one.

Maybe this latest decision by the U.S. District Court will be the excuse for change. Judge Gleeson has mandated  that the New York State Legislature devise new guidelines for state Supreme Court elections.

Maybe the lawmakers will just call the whole thing off. Or maybe they will accept the wannabe judges as real, live political candidates engaged in a real live political campaign.

Maybe they will trust – just this once – that the public is smart enough to make up its own mind.

Spitzer Seeks “Inevitability”

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This audio Political Notebook talks about the reasons behind Democrat Eliot Spitzer’s early choice for Lt. Gov.

Why would Spitzer step out so early and name Senate Minority Leader David Paterson as his choice for number two?

Perhaps it’s because the Democratic Party in New York relishes the idea of putting a quick end to a possibly primary challenge. The way to do that is create the idea of Spitzer’s "inevitability" as the gubernatorial candidate.

Also in this podcast, the discussion veers to Steve Minarik and whether his role as State Party Chairman is really beginning to look like the job held by many trying to right the Monroe County Democratic Party Committee.

 

Supreme Change for NY Courts (and for a Local Party Boss)

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Rarely do you see a court decision decimate an election process.

But that’s exactly what last week’s U.S. District Court ruling did to New York’s unique (some would say unconstitutional) 85-year-old system of picking state Supreme Court judges. (See the ruling here… it’s good reading.)

The decision bellows proclamations. It says the power of picking state Supreme Court judge candidates rests in the hands of a few party bosses and silences the rank-and-file party members.

Pages of the decision are devoted to pointing out party control around the state. And there is one page of local interest – it includes testimony by a former Rochester City Court judge who charged that county Republicans under Steve Minarik struck a deal to turn over final say for state Supreme Court GOP candidate to the Monroe County Conservative Party run by Tom Cook. That testimony – and the accusation – has Minarik fuming.

But Minarik is also the state party chairman. And, wearing that hat, he said his State Republican Party will likely appeal this decision. State Democrats will do likewise. And Minarik hints that doing away with the current process may bring with it the unwanted rise of judicial candidates with big money running and winning.

Let’s move back a few steps.

The controversy pivots around a strange electoral contraption for state Supreme Court candidates known as the "judicial convention," which has been in place for all of the state since 1921. State Supreme Court judicial districts encompass many counties. Rochester and Monroe County is part of the Seventh Judicial District, which also includes seven other neighboring counties. The "Judicial Convention" convenes delegates from all of these counties to choose that party’s Supreme Court candidate.

Confused? Don’t be. Simply understand this – delegates have the power to pick party candidates. Delegates are often people close to the county party apparatus. Delegate elections are obscure, and so those named by the party are rarely challenged.

That means, when it comes to state Supreme Court, there are no primary challenges in the traditional sense. Outside challengers must convince the delegates to accept you. The thing is – the party leadership always has a favorite candidate by the time these conventions convene. So an outsider has virtually no shot of changing minds at these conventions. And they can’t run delegates because the process is so cumbersome (imagine trying to run a slate of your own delegates across the eight counties of our own seventh judicial district).

This was the problem – as opponents to the system saw it.

And this was the charge made in a lawsuit filed in federal court by the Brennan Center for Justice. You may remember these folks from the report they issued in 2004 on the dysfunction of the New York State Legislature. The organization was joined by eight potential judicial candidates who, as the New York Law Journal put it, said the election process was unfair and virtually impossible without the backing of key party leaders.

Nearly two years after it was filed, the judge in the case, Eastern District Judge John Gleeson agreed.

Gleeson called for the New York State Legislature to replace the Election Law that uses delegates and conventions to elect State Supreme Court Judicial candidates with something, well, more democratic. In the meantime he ordered a stay of the convention process, and to hold traditional party primaries for the next state Supreme Court elections.

But you really ought to read the decision itself to get a handle on what opponents of this system call a "defacto appointment system" controlled by party leaders. Here’s just one comment by Gleeson on the system – it’s "an opaque, undemocratic selection procedure that violates the rights of the voters and the rights of candidates who lack the backing of local party leaders."

The text takes aim at both political parties. There are pages of the decision devoted to the brass-knuckle tactics of Kings County Democratic Leader Clarence Norman. Gleeson praises the First District in New York City for having more involvement by the rank-and-file, but then says that the Democratic leader there, Denny Farrell, controls the process (Farrell is now the state Democratic Chairman).

That brings us to Steve Minarik. On page 45 of the decision comes the tale of former Rochester City Court Judge John Regan. He won a seat on City Court back in 1981 running on BOTH the Republican and Democratic lines. Regan said he’s a conservative. In 1992, he lost that seat, running as a Republican. In 1994, he wanted to run for state Supreme Court but did not get the nomination. In his testimony, Regan said that this was because the County Republican under Minarik allowed the county Conservatives under Tom Cook to choose the GOP’s candidate.

Why, Regan went so far as to say that the Republican nomination for Supreme Court effectively ended at the Conservative Party dinner held in May, when people “(found) out who the candidate (was) going to be.”

In 1994, it wasn’t going to be Regan. He testified that he had gotten on Tom Cook’s wrong side. Regan pressed on but was told by the county leader (Minarik) that he controlled the judicial convention delegates and "that’s all that matters."

By phone, Regan added that he went so far as to try and challenge the Republican Party delegates that year by running his own candidates. He chose himself and his sons because that was the only way voters would know who was backing him for judge. State law prohibits the delegates for declaring on the ballot who they support.

“That it is a primary process is a fraud,” he said.

Regan recalled his testimony in this case. It was an all-day affair, he said. And he recalls being drilled in cross-examination as being nothing more than a malcontent because he had lost.

This was also what Minarik said about Regan’s testimony.

"Regan is certifiable," Minarik said. "He wanted to be a Supreme Court judge and we passed him over. You have to consider the source."

Regan said Minarik is just using a tactic he always uses – "disparage the source."

When I asked Minarik about Regan’s testimony – that he gave the Conservative Party final say – Minarik said he was insulted by the question.

"That I would even consider such a thing is insulting," he said. "I could never do that." He pointed to some candidates who ran for State Supreme Court as a Republican with Conservative backing… Ann Marie Taddeo, Evelyn Frazee.

The  real problem, said Minarik, has nothing to do with Regan. Minarik said that this ruling would unwittingly unleash new problems – namely money problems. He said that if the system is changed to a primary process – then only those with deep personal financial reserves could afford to run. Only those people, Minarik said, could effectively campaign in these large judicial districts. It’s the same concern voiced by others in a New York Times article on the ruling.

Regan gave another option – an old option. He reached back to the last Constitutional Convention in New York State, in 1967. Then, there was a proposal to make state Supreme Court judges elected countywide. That, Regan said, would make it more affordable.

That effort to reform electing state Supreme Court judges failed then.

This one appears to have more staying power.

nd now the issue gets plopped on the laps of state lawmakers.

And state and local party chairs have a whole new world to look at when it comes to picking judges for state Supreme Court.

There’s Optimism, Then There is Denial.

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Rochesterians have, for too long,  received platitudes that sound sunny when it comes to the local economy. Even as Kodak downsizes… even as people leave the area for work.

That’s why Sandy Parker’s address was a needed clang of the bell.

Earlier this month she told the Rochester Rotary Club during her annual speech: "This year I’ve struggled with optimism. You ask why? It’s because we are in trouble."

On WXXI’s Need to Know program this Friday, we sat with Parker and asked her about the reasons for making such an address. Take the 10 minutes or so it requires to listen in (just click here). You’ll hear what she believes ails Rochester and Upstate… and you’ll also hear what sounds like some fairly bold proposals – like exempting Upstate New York from onerous laws.

Some will question Parker’s motives. She has an agenda called "Unshackle Upstate" – and there are those who believe she’s using this dire picture to push forward that agenda.

But does it matter? Isn’t it time that Rochesterians faced up to the facts of the region’s economic condition and began conversing about possible remedies?

Also take a listen to another Need to Know interview This one is with John Perticone, a labor leader in the Rochester area. His answers show just how complex it will be simply to reform New York State laws – and where the battle lines are drawn. You can listen to his interview by clicking right here.

State Republican, Meet Monroe County Democrat

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It’s pretty easy to criticize Steve Minarik these days as the state GOP swirls in its public chaos. One columnist from New York City
suggested
Minarik is ready to leave as the New York State Republican chairman. Days later Minarik told WXXI that the NYC column is trafficking in rumors.

Whatever the private situation – it’s clear that Minarik is dealing with a party in turmoil. The situation is similar to those experienced by Bob Cook, Ted O’Brien and Molly Clifford when they took turns heading up the Monroe County Democratic Committee.

Like those three county Democratic leaders, Minarik has no other political position beyond being a chairman. Yes, he’s head of the Monroe County Republican Committee. But he’s unlike, say, Assemblyman Joe Morelle or his state counterpart, Assemblyman Denny Ferrell, who hold party chair positions. Having an elected political post can help dilute his public role as chairman – and bring with it a certain power of its own.

So Minarik must amass a political base by helping others get elected (just as he did in Monroe County). Doing this puts elected leaders in a position of gratitude. And those politicians understand the advantage of keeping in place a system that got them the win. That includes the person who orchestrated the win.

Newcomers to a party chair post don’t enjoy that perk right away. They need time to chalk up those wins. So it was for Minarik on the state level. He  needed the backing and support of the person who brought him in. He needed the power (monetary and vocal) from that patron. Then he had to hope the rest of the elected leadership in the party would rally around him.

But these days Gov. George Pataki has been a no-show when it comes to New York State Republican politics. And others in the state (Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno and Congressman John Sweeney) are hardly getting behind him. Former Pataki patron, Alfonse D’Amato, comes out squarely against Minarik’s choice for governor (William Weld). So the challengers to Minarik’s
candidate
are emboldened. Then comes the real threat – the outsider with a potential to challenge the orthodoxy.

But – as has been written in this space before – a chair is only as good as the team around him or her. That was applied to Clifford when she took over for the Democrats… and then for Rick Dollinger during his
minuscule tenure as county party chair. What the count Democrats needed (and still need) are elected people at the top who can support the chair, provide help in rallying the troops around that chair. Bob Duffy stands in for Bill Johnson but the equation doesn’t change.

George Pataki needs to be involved in his state party as much as ever, although it probably will not happen while Pataki has his sights set on Iowa and New Hampshire.

So criticize Minarik all you want. But the chairman is much like the manager of a baseball club. He’s a genius when they are winning and a bum when they’re not. In reality, it’s the players on the field, not the manager that do the winning and losing.  That applies to Monroe County Democrats as much as it does to New York State Republicans.

I’m sure Minarik is  not so thrilled to learn how the other half lives.

A (Ticket) Balancing Act

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But where is the balance?

Eliot Spitzer says he’s going to run for governor with State Senate Minority Leader David Paterson as his lieutenant governor. Spitzer’s from Manhattan. Paterson is also from New York City.

So north-of-Rockland County-Democrats should be upset that upstate has been upstaged, right? Especially when we thought Leecia Eve was in line to be Spitzer’s number two. She is the daughter of a Buffalo-area institution – Arthur Eve. This would certainly tick-off the upstate contingent of Democrats, right?

Doesn’t seem like it.

Yes…Spitzer’s choice has rankled some power-brokers in the party – but they are largely old-guard downstaters like Rep. Charlie Rangel.

Up in our neck of the woods the official Democratic reaction sounds more like Joe Morelle’s: “I’m very okay with David Paterson… my concern was only that he pick someone who is skilled enough to step in and serve as governor.”

Morelle, the state assemblyman from Irondequoit and the Monroe County Democratic chairman has nothing bad to say about Leecia Eve. But he did add that she actually needs to “work on her upstate credentials.” While she is a product of a powerful Buffalo lineage, her experience has largely been as an aide to people like Sen. Hillary Clinton in Washington. Her lieutenant governor campaign headquarters is in Brooklyn.

But what about the balance, Joe?

“Ask 10 people on State Street if you can tell me who the lieutenant governor is and where she came from,” he said. “Few could name her and I’ll bet no one would know where she came from.”

To Morelle, there is too much emphasis on geographic balance. Downstate Hugh Carey ran and won with downstate Mario Cuomo as the lieutenant governor candidate in 1978. Four years later Cuomo ran with downstate Al DelBello and won.

“People are obsessed with it,” Morelle said. “Because it’s conventional wisdom.”

Could be. But it’ll mean that Spitzer and Paterson will have to give more face time and more lip service to the plight of upstate New York…. just to make sure.