Minority Report

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The post-election season usually involves political shifting. That includes new people sometimes jockeying for leadership posts.

time the political sands shifted for minority leadership positions.
Stephanie Aldersley morphs into Carla Palumbo as the new head of the
Democratic minority caucus on the Monroe County Legislature.

Charlie Nesbitt fades away for Jim Tedesco as leader of the Republican minority on the New York State Assembly.

with these changes is one truth: These minority leadership jobs are
some of the toughest political tasks. Minority parties rarely impact on
policy through the legislative process. Sadly, the majorities in any
legislature are quick to bat down or table proposals from the minority
side. So the minority must represent the alternative voice. This can
happen in floor speeches. Or it can happen through the press.

other job for the minority leader is, quite simply, to marshal the
forces needed to increase the ranks and get closer to the majority. In
other words, this person is far more of a political leader.

heard two explanations for Palumbo for Aldersley swap for Monroe County
legislative Democrats. First, that a change is needed to keep the blood
flowing. Aldersley had the job for three and a half years, and, as
Palumbo explained, any organization worth its salt needs a fresh
approach now and again. Second, this change sets up better continuity
for the Democratic caucus because Aldersley – an eight year incumbent –
has only two more years before term limits force her out. Palumbo first
took her legislative seat after the 2001 elections.

But it
leaves out the political equation. During this year’s election,
Democrats county legislature maintained 12 seats on the 29-person
legislative body. But there was no increase of numbers. In fact, the
Democrats never got close to taking control under Aldersley’s
three-and-a-half year run as leader. Some will choose to blame
Aldersley. I would say that the Democratic Party in general has been in
such disarray over the last few years that no one would have been able
to make a difference.

But that political component becomes
part of the job. And the minority leader is sometimes like the coach of
a rebuilding football team that isn’t making any promise. The blame may
or may not lie with the coaching decisions, but the axe always comes
down on the coach’s neck first.

It is worth noting that
Democrats have found new hope after November. And it’s because of wins
in town and county legislative races in Irondequoit – a town that is as
much Aldersley country as it is O’Brien’s or new town supervisor Mary
Ellen Heyman’s.

But, in the end, the numbers of the caucus
needed to go up. And now it’s Carla Palumbo who will have the
responsibility for pushing them up.

Charlie Nesbitt, the Albion-based state assemblyman, can relate.

– who represents a portion of northwestern Monroe County – also held
the position of Republican Assembly minority leader. One supposes that
he could only look on with envy at Republican Senate Majority Leader
Joe Bruno, who wielded power and became known as one of the three men
in the room.

Nesbitt’s caucus was dwarfed by the Democrats
(lead by Sheldon Silver). The noise that he could make during, say,
budget season was puny. And Nesbitt had no luck in building up the
minority’s numbers and, in fact, was seeing the caucus lose seats
(right now Democrats have 105 seats to the Republicans’ 42).

came to a head earlier this year when Assemblyman Dan Burling announced
he would challenge Nesbitt for the caucus leadership. He told Karen
Dewitt, "We’ve got members that don’t feel this conference is taking
any direction."

Nesbitt withstood the Burling challenge. But
you had to wonder how much longer Nesbitt was going to hold on. For, in
the end, Nesbitt took the blame for the numbers even though the
Republican dilemma was as much a problem of redistricting, a process
that ensured the comfort of incumbents. As Nesbitt must know all too
well, when your team has far fewer incumbents, those incumbent
protection redistricting maps are really no help at all (something he
can thank Joe Bruno for as much as Sheldon Silver).

Nesbitt no longer has to worry about the growth of the minority now
that Gov. George Pataki has appointed him head of the tax appeals

Now Assemblyman Jim Tedesco of Schenectady must shoulder the leadership yoke. Just like Carla Palumbo will. 

Sounds like a rather thankless job, doesn’t it?

Tallying Up the Score (or… When Do I Eat the Humble Pie?)

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This space allows me the chance to make a few predictions.

With 2005 coming to a close, it only seems fair to make an accounting of whether these "prophecies" came to pass.

Doubt still remains about one proclamation I made at the start of 2005: That New York would see the death of the "moderate Republican." Last January I wrote that with the departure of Rep. Amo Houghton, we will no longer see this type of Republican representative in these parts.

But the Republican Party hasn’t made that decision yet… although it’s coming soon. In the next few weeks, New York GOP Chairman Steve Minarik (also the Monroe County chief) plans to have the county chairman vote on who they would support for governor in 2006.

If Minarik gets his way, they will back the very definition of "moderate" in the Republican ranks – former Massachusetts governor William Weld. But there is dissention in the ranks, which has emboldened more conservative voices in the party to run – former Assembly Minority Leader John Faso and former Secretary of State Randy Daniels chief among them. Faso and Daniels will have to sell themselves as true conservatives.

My bet (perhaps I shouldn’t be making a prediction in a column devoted to deconstructing previous predictions.. but what the hell) is that Weld will get the nod.

And then Tom Golisano will be waiting for a primary challenge. And tell me the New Yorker that would call him a rock-ribbed conservative.

I also predicted at the start of 05 (probably under the influence of a champagne hangover) that the mayoral candidates would trip over themselves to sell the city voters that they could work well with County Executive Maggie Brooks. I proclaimed this as though it would be a campaign centerpiece.

In reality, a Brooks accord was far from the core of the campaign. The violence in the city, the relationship with the City School District and the competence of the candidates took the rightful places as top issues during that campaign.

But on another city issue I was dead-on. I wrote that taxpayers should prepare to be on the hook for the remainder of the life of the Rochester Fast Ferry.

There should have been no surprise when Mayor Bill Johnson said a few weeks back that it was a mistake to say the city-operated ferry would not need a government subsidy.

Of course it would. And of course it will continue to need an infusion of city cash for the foreseeable future. The question now will be whether the city should seek other government funders (the county, the region, the state)… and, more importantly, whether those entities would even broach the idea of helping to keep the ferry afloat.

And while I apparently have no trouble taking bows for the Ferry prediction, I ought to hide my head on the next one. I wrote (rather sniffily) on January 2, 2005 that the Democratic Party will be scrambling just to keep the 12 seats they already have on the Monroe County Legislature.

It seemed logical at the time. County Legislator Chris Wilmot had just flipped parties moving from Democrat to Republican (giving the GOP a 17 to 12 advantage before 2006 even began). Fred Amato, a Greece conservative Democrat, was being forced out and the party would have a problem in his district. In Irondequoit, Democratic incumbent Stephanie Aldersley barely survived her last challenge. And Ted O’Brien, who had been appointed to the other legislative seat, had never won a political race. Both could be had.

And the Democrats had far more incumbents being forced out by term limits than the GOP. Frankly, I thought the Republicans would get 20 seats on the 29 member county legislature and gain a veto-proof majority.

Well Amato did lose (his wife, that is)… but Democrats made gains by taking back Wilmot’s seat. Aldersley and O’Brien became part of the Irondequoit surge, both winning their races rather handily. The Democrats held serve.

Ah… you win some, you lose some, right?

Finally came this prediction at the dawn of the current year: That we would see New York State Legislators talking about reform, but not actually achieving substantive change.

They could have reopened the call for a constitutional convention or tried to give away the power of redrawing district lines. That didn’t happen.

But they did come up with a budget reform package that would have given more control to themselves… it would also impose a contingency budget if the lawmakers and the governor couldn’t agree by a new deadline of May 1.

This went before the voters. And before it did, the voices of opposition rang out loudly. And it went down to defeat.

This budget reform package, however, was really no reform at all. It would have split up power in a different way… but it wouldn’t have gotten to the core of the problem. The concentration of power in the hands of a few in Albany would not have changed. Nor would it alter the entrenched incumbent class in the legislature.

Creating a ray of hope that Albany would be responsive – that’s where reform begins. Of course that wasn’t on the ballot in 2005.

I suppose I got that one right. I wish I hadn’t.

The Endangered DemCon

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Have you heard they took the Yellowstone grizzly bear off the list of endangered species?

That’s good for the bear, you’d figure.

In Monroe County, however, it’s high time that a political animal go on the endangered list.

The Democrat endorsed by the Conservative Party.

In the 2005 election, the Monroe County Conservative Party boasted endorsements for 114 candidates. They may have well lifted the Republican Party slate and adopted it for their own. In only three instances did they back a Democrat. In Webster, DemCons William Saucke (Webster Supervisor) and Alexander Sienkiewicz (Webster Town Council) lost. In Irondequoit, Joe Genier, a DemCon town justice incumbent, won.

Other than that… the Conservatives backed Republicans (or in a few instances candidates who ran solely on the Conservative Party line and lost).

The last comparable local election year was 2001 when there were similar county races, town races and at least a number of county legislative slots open. In that year, the Tom Cook-led Conservatives endorsed Democrats such as Vinnie Faggiano for Sheriff (who lost), Fred Amato for County Legislature (who barely beat the Republican to keep his seat). They backed Democrat John Howland in Henrietta against Republican incumbent Jim Breese… and also supported two Henrietta Democrats (Tom Dietz and Ray Ottman) for town board against Republicans Janet Zinck and Michael Yudelson.

This year? An Amato ran for county legislator, but it was Fred’s wife Pat because he couldn’t seek reelection due to term limits. The Conservative Party backed Republican Ray DiRaddo against Pat Amato. She lost. In Henrietta, Breese, Zinck and Yudelson all got the Conservative support. Hell, they gave their Conservative label to people like Ralph Esposito in Gates, the Republican incumbent supervisor who proposed a budget that hikes taxes 14 percent.

Time was when Conservative and Democrat could live with the same Rochester area candidate. Go back to the 1980s when Reagan reigned supreme: Roger Robach, Joe Robach, Ralph Quattrociocchi, Bob Stevenson, David Proud, Gary Proud, Bill Gillette, Phil Fedele, Jack Kelly, John Auberger, Amato, – these were all Democrats who won with Conservative backing. Many of them came from the west side of the region.

When Tom Cook wrested control of the Conservative Party from Leo Kesserling way back around the start of the Reagan era, he opened the door to the Dems – and even reached out to the party chairman, the liberal Larry Kirwin. I recall a few years ago Nathan Robfogel, a former Democratic County Chairman in the 1980s, saying that it didn’t make sense to run liberal Democrats west of the Genesee.

Now? No DemCons.

So what’s this mean? Well, it makes it harder to understand the comment that Democratic County Legislator-elect Paul Haney gave to Krestia DeGeorge in City Newspaper – that the next town Democrats could claim is Gates – a west side, traditionally conservative town. Maybe the demographics are changing.

It’s also harder to believe a statement (made, albeit, in an offhand way) from County Democratic Chairman Joe Morelle, who said that Joe Robach, now a Republican state senator, is the kind of politician who should be coming back to the Democratic Party.

Doesn’t this lack of Conservative labeling hurt the Democrats? Well, the party seems rather blasé about it. They can now get another line from places like the Working Families Party and the Independence Party. Maybe they think the Independence line allows them the ability to show they are moderate… and go after the so-called Reagan Democrats.

But that could be in jeopardy if the Independence Party can’t muster the 50,000 votes it needs in the next gubernatorial election (a real possibility with its benefactor, Tom Golisano, now a registered Republican).

And what does it mean for the Conservative Party. Under Tom Cook, that party created the illusion of being real powerbrokers. In part, that was because they could endorse either of the two major party candidates in a key election.

But now, it appears that Cook and the conservatives find themselves in the more traditional role of this party in New York State – being a check and a balance on the Republican Party. (Just look at the statewide GOP. Now some gubernatorial candidates from their own ranks say they will run on the Conservative line if they don’t get the Republican endorsement).

Or maybe Cook and the Conservatives simply don’t want to get involved with Democrats until they can show their mettle on the west side… clearly the Democrat organization there is weak.

Any way you slice, however, one thing is true – the DemCon is truly a vanishing breed.

Monday Morning Quarterbacking

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After an election, political party leaders act like football coaches.. They look at what they did right to get votes and work to replicate those.  The moves that don’t work, they try to alter or ditch entirely.

Election 2005 had a few reasons for the party leaders to go back to the playbook. And there were other results… more mixed… that might force those party leaders to figure out what it all meant. 

TAXES/SPENDING – Let’s start with the area that sent the fuzziest of mixed messages.

Just look at two town supervisor races to get an understanding of the confusion fiscal issues seemingly created.

In Gates, Democratic challenger Sue Swanton worked to make Republican incumbent Ralph Esposito look like he had no handle on fiscal matters. The Esposito budget added fuel to that fire. Just weeks before Gates residents went to the polls, he authored a spending plan that would increase the property tax rate by nearly 14 percent.

Republicans here see property tax hikes as the third rail. Steve Minarik, the Republican chair, makes stable property taxes the  party’s biggest selling point. So the Esposito budget flies in the face of the standard.

And even with Swanton pointing to Esposito’s fiscal irresponsibility, he still managed to win. It’s astounding if you think about it.

Meanwhile in Irondequoit, Democratic challenger Mary Ellen Heyman claimed Republican incumbent David Schantz was asleep at the fiscal wheel. Spending was out of sight, she said… town debt rose. She claimed she can do better.

She’ll get that shot. Heyman pulled off one of the few upsets in this election by unseating Schantz. And the Schantz budget was nearly as onerous as Esposito’s.

So what does this tell party strategists? It seems to say that trying to keep property taxes flat might not be the slam-dunk sales pitch it used to be.

CRIME – Bob Duffy was a police chief in the city. His opponents (Wade Norwood, John Parrinello, and Tim Mains) tried in different ways to say that he wasn’t effective.

The election results seem to say that Duffy’s opponents weren’t effective. But perhaps that would be a false read on the part of the Democratic Party and Duffy.

John Parrinello did hit a vein when he talked about aggressively attacking drug dealing on the streets, cracking down on gangs, making parents more accountable.  The tough talk did get notice by city voters. The messenger, however, made it harder for people ultimately to vote for him.

In the next few years, Duffy will have to convince the people of Rochester that he’s done something to make the city safer. He’s going to have to prove to those who aren’t coming downtown, that it’s okay to set foot on those sidewalks. His will be a problem to deal with both on the streets… and in the minds of people in Monroe County.

Because if he doesn’t, the Republican Party will have a blueprint to go after him. And this time they might find a messenger who isn’t as abrasive as Parrinello.

UNITY – Republicans in Monroe County are not going the way of the national GOP. They still seem united; they still talk about the team. The GOP lost nothing they didn’t already lack in the city. And, with one grand exception, Republicans held their serve in the county and the towns.

But challenges lie ahead. That one exception, Irondequoit, should nag at GOP strategists to figure out what went wrong.

The County Legislature is still in the hands of the GOP, but they have a lot of new faces in the mix. Perhaps they will still have a common interest with County Executive Maggie Brooks’ administration… and they will let her take the lead. But maybe, if the budget situation remains bumpy, they will start breaking away.

Democrats, meanwhile, should be buoyed by the election. They got a town (Irondequoit) and seem to be finally building Democratic foot soldiers in places outside of Rochester.

It’s progress. But Democrats still have to craft a message that will work in places outside the city.  And the mayor’s race picked at the scab of dissention among Democratic leaders. Should internal division linger over the next few years, and should the Duffy administration stagger out of the gate, well, that would make things far more difficult for the party in the coming years.

So now the political strategists huddle up for 2006. Let’s see what they break out come the new year.

Who Wants Mr. Smith Anyway?

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Good ol’ Mr. Smith is sure taking it on the chin these days.

You remember the citizen legislator from the black and white celluloid days. Jimmy Stewart played him – a kind of aw-shucks type who gained a seat in Congress. A man of the people, representing his constituents, bringing the legislative process to its knees until it responded to the will of the folks.

I wrote earlier about the proposal to shrink the Monroe County Legislature from 29 members to as few as 15.Republicans in control of that body, through the voice of President Wayne Zyra, said that it would diminish the local control of county government. He imagines 29 Mr. Smiths connecting with their local people, acting on their behalf.

And yet this idea of legislative might in government has gotten some bad press in recent days.

You may have read, heard and watched the parade of people who are coming out against a ballot measure in New York that would give more budget making authority to the state legislature.

Just listen to one of those in opposition – former Governor Mario Cuomo’s budget director: R. Wayne Diesel: "It’s better to have fiscal responsibility in the hands of one. Today, in the executive budget process, there is a focal point of accountability and that’s in the executive… To attempt to transfer accountability to 212 focal points simply can’t work. It dilutes accountability. It dilutes responsibility."

I’m sure that will swell with pride the chests of the 212 state Assembly and Senate members.

Heck the state Conservative Party released a statement that made legislators out to be much less like Mr. Smith do-gooders and much more like back-room wheelers and dealers.

On the county level, there have been complaints that the county executive’s office does far more policy setting for county government than do the lawmakers.

Carrie Andrews, a Democrat running for a legislative seat, said that there seems to be a kind of role reversal between the executive and the legislature. "According to the Monroe County Charter, the county legislature is supposed to be the appropriating, policy-determining body in Monroe County. What we have is actually the county executive who tends to set the policy course."

But another legislative candidate, Republican Alex Zapesochny, said perhaps people need to look at this in a slightly different way.

"If your belief is that we need strong leadership to adjust to the new kind of economy that we have right now, then maybe having a strong executive isn’t a bad thing," he said.

Maybe so. And maybe a budget drafted by an administration, rather than a deliberative body, is better.

But with everyone and their brother ripping down legislative bodies these days, it’s quite hard to hear comments by elected officials who say that local government is most responsive to the people.

No one seems to believe that nowadays.

So, You Wanna Debate or Something?

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It was such a simple idea.

Instead it made me feel in turns like the dweeb getting rejected for the prom and the ogre turning away people at the gate.

All we (meaning the Voice of the Voter effort) wanted to do was hold debates with candidates for the Monroe County Legislature. After all, there have been plenty of complaints that the Rochester press has paid much less attention to these kinds of races (City Council, County Legislature, Town Board) than for the Rochester mayor’s race.

So the thought was to pick a couple of districts – and the candidates would be thrilled to come.

Then the no’s came rolling in.
Dave Malta, the Republican incumbent in the 8th District, said he wanted to focus on going door-to-door. His opponent, Democrat Chris Gorman, seemed interested, but he would have had to shuffle his schedule around.

Travis Heider, the Democrat in the 14th District, said through a campaign manager that work would prevent him from coming (the taping for the program is Thursday morning at 10:30 a.m). Work also seemed to be the impediment for Phil Zuber, the Republican running in the 21st District.

Bill Smith, the Republican Majority Leader in the 10th District, said he was booked up.
Lydia Dzus, the Republican challenging in the 16th District, never responded to the four phone calls left on her voicemail. Republican Committee Executive Director Mike Barry ultimately let me down easy by saying that she was unlikely to make it.

Then I had to turn around and release those who planned on coming from showing up. Gorman didn’t have to figure out whether he needed to reschedule. Ted Nixon, the Democrat trying to beat Smith, voiced disappointment.

In the end, we opted to have a forum on the role of the county legislature with incumbent Democrat Stephanie Aldersley (Dzus’ opponent) and challengers Alex Zapesochny, a Republican, and Carrie Andrews, a Democrat, in the mix. (Heider and Zuber are their opponent respectively). We also included long-time Republcan legislator Michael Hanna, who will not be running because of term limits. The idea is to talk not just about the legislature’s role, but also about what the future challenges would be… and whether the new term limits for lawmakers are really working.

There is the desire to ascribe motives for why the naysayers wanted to stay away. Many thought that a week’s notice was too little. Maybe it was.

Barry told me that Republican political leaders stress to their candidates that door-to-door campaigning and mailers are key in these races. So maybe that’s a legitmate excuse.

It could have been more politically strategic. If a candidate thinks he or she has the race wrapped up, why chance a gaffe in debate. Or maybe those in closer races didn’t want a televised blunder to submarine their chances. Of course, no one would say that was the motive.

In my rejected heart I kept thinking… "but it’s less than a week before election… wouldn’t this be a great opportunity to put your views (and that of your politcal party caucus) before the voters?" But perhaps that’s just the lament of the spurned.

Don’t those pimply-faced teenage boys rationalize when they’re hosed by a prospective date?

It’s tough to have to relive those awkward high school years.

Speaking of Crime…

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The program I host on WXXI – Need to Know – tried to help push forward the dialogue on the violence aimed at young people on our city streets.

This grabbed some attention from the blogoratti in town – namely Bill Nojay (an attorney, former head of the transportation authority board, one-time congressional candidate and all the time pundit). Check out Nojay’s commentary on the program, a roundtable discussion with Mayor Bill Johnson, Police Chief Cedric Alexander, District Attorney Mike Green and people who deal with the problem of youth violence on the street level.

At one point Nojay suggested that a police officer should have been on the panel – but the organizers of the forum were afraid of the answer a beat cop might give: "double the size of the police force, give them the resources they need to do their jobs, stop throwing tens of millions of tax dollars at supporting a couple bars in the High Falls district and the ferry to Toronto, and channel those funds to additional cops on the beat. Liberal Democrats don’t like to hear those kinds of things. And liberal Democrats have run Rochester for 30 years."

I wrote back to Nojay and told him that the one-hour endeavor was an attempt at getting those panelists… and, ultimately all of us, to look at possible solutions. In the end… the answers are knowable. You articulated one of them, doubling the size of the police force. Then the question is would you be willing to pay for that. Would you accept services to be cut in other areas (knowing full well that the subsidy for the High Falls venture wouldn’t be nearly enough to cover doubling the force)? Would you accept a hike in taxes? Those are the real concrete decisions that not just the leadership, but the governed need to grapple with. Although, in the end, the leadership must embrace an approach… and then try and sell that to the governed.

Nojay’s response: There haven’t been honest discussions of those issues in this town — the public events all degenerate into broad truisms and hand wringing. WXXI and WHAM are the two outlets where the public discussions can best occur.

A rather off the point answer. But, again, it’s good that Nojay wants to help stir the pot… so long as he wants an end result that amounts to a reasoned, rational decision on the way to attack the problem.

Too Flip?

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Thought provoking pieces often mean provoking people to disagree with your thoughts.

And so it was with the latest post on a reform measure in New York here or here

Matthew Maguire of the New York State Business Council complies a solid blog on upstate news. During his October 31 listing, he takes me to task for minimizing the potential impact of Proposal One, which would give more budget-making power to the legislature.

It’s an interesting essay and a good case for redistricting reform. But that sniffy stuff suggesting that opponents of the RSA (Proposal One) should focus instead on a reform that would have "far more meaning" grossly underestimates, in our view and the view of a huge and diverse collection of policy-oriented New York, the damage that would be done by this. Good points on redistricting, Mike, but you’re wrong to pooh-pooh this thing.

I see his point. And I wish that I had made mine even clearer. I’m not aiming the comments at one side of the Proposal One argument. Merely, I suggest that the energy expended by all sides on this debate would be better spent on a reform that, in my estimation, would have a far greater impact on the workings of the legislature.

But, hey, I don’t mind the debate over this. And never when it comes from a guy like Mr. Maguire.

One Real Proposal for Reform

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Proposal One on the New York ballot seems to scare the heck out of some folks.

The proposal claims to reform state government by changing the way a budget is passed in New York. More authority would go to the legislature and a contingency budget would be enacted if lawmakers can’t meet a later budget deadline of May 1.

Opponents to Proposal One have taken the Halloween approach. Scary words are coming from people like Gov. George Pataki, organizations like the Business Council of New York and editorial pages around the state. They say that the reform is no reform at all. They say that instead of "three men in a room" passing a budget (the governor, the Assembly Speaker and the Senate Majority Leader), it would create "two men in a room" (eliminating the governor).Opponents hope the "boo" tactics will convince you to vote no on the proposal. Pataki calls it "dangerous." One group has taken to carting around a gigantic pink pig (of the pork barrel variety) to demonstrate opposition (it visited Rochester last week)

All this effort. Too bad it’s not centered on another reform effort that would have far more meaning.

I mean rewiring New York State’s redistricting process.

It’s not that I don’t care about reforming the budget – this state surely needs it. But I’d rather see the time and effort expended on a ballot initiative that would have maximum return on the investment.

Other states are tackling that redistricting. In California, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger is priming the pump for something called Proposition 77. This proposal would give the job of drawing state and congressional lines to a three-member panel of retired judges. Right now California legislators carve up the state, just as they do in New York.

Right now the redistricting process, which happens every ten years, turns into an incumbent protection plan. Just like it does in New York.

Schwarzenegger has apparently been stumping for this outside of his home state. He visited Ohio, where voters in that state will also have a ballot measure to move the redistricting duties from legislators to an independent commission.

I’d be thrilled to see the Terminator visiting the Empire State to help rip away the rewriting of legislative maps from the hands of partisan politicians.

Some states, like Washington and Arizona, already have independent panels working up the lines every decade.

Yet there’s not a whisper about such reforms in New York. Not a peep. And there ought to be.

Visit the New York Public Interest Research Group’s web page on redistricting and you’ll see how corrosive the current partisan process is to accountability. It plays a huge role in sapping competitiveness from most state legislative and congressional districts.

For example, NYPIRG reports that, thanks to partisan redistricting mapmakers, only 11 percent of the 212 state legislative districts have close enough enrollments between the two major parties for competitive races.

Just look at Louise Slaughter and Joe Robach for an understanding. Slaughter’s redrawn congressional district took her from one based largely in Monroe County to a headphone-shaped monstrosity that curls up from Rochester, goes north and west through Niagara Falls and snakes back down into Buffalo. Robach’s State Senate district is two blobs (one stationed in Greece and Parma, the second in the city and Brighton) that are connected by a threadlike stretch barely the width of a street.

These so-called districts are jokes. They mock the idea that a district should have a common community connection. These are manipulated district lines that ensure one party (the one in control of redistricting) can easily win a legislative seat.

And without competition, elected lawmakers can believe they are untouchable come Election Day. That emboldens them to pay less attention to the regular voter. That makes them feel they can take more liberties with policy. Pleasing the mapmakers (the elite of the ruling party) becomes part of the equation.

Independent mapmakers, however, could take into account the connectedness of a district – and whether there is true electoral competition in districts.

The angst over the budget reform proposal is all well and good.

But a reform of the redistricticting process would come with the component of accountability.

And that kind of reform would give voters the power to assess whether the elected official is really paying attention to their issues.

In other words, the redistricting reform would put voters in the position of easily make other "reforms" happen.

© Copyright 2005, WXXI

Forget the Czar, Embrace the Zero

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William Carpenter is the latest to gain the strange title of "czar."

It’s unofficial, of course.

Officially County Executive Maggie Brooks has elevated Carpenter, the county’s budget director, to a special assistant. His role will be defined as finding cost savings in places that, as she put it, "impact the budget the most."

She means Medicaid. She worries about the rising cost of the entitlement program creating a permanent hole in the county’s budget.

"Which is why we are creating this new Medicaid Czar position, for lack of a better term," Brooks said. "That will provide a specific focus to those areas that will continue to grow, continue to impact our budget, continue to increase the size of the deficit as we move forward."

You’ve got to love that term – czar. In a nation that prides itself on democratic principals, the term swings far from that ideal.

A czar or tsar is linked to a person with extraordinary power – an emperor. It’s been used for the leaders of empires throughout the ages, but is best known as the title for those who lead Russia up to the revolution.

How in the world would the good ol’ US of A find itself calling people czars?

Well it usually rises when a problem looks to be fairly unsolvable, and the governing leadership wants a person in charge who spend every waking moment trying to cure it.

The nation’s war on drugs appears to be the time when the title took off. That was when the first President Bush appointed Bill Bennett as director of the U.S. Drug Control Policy back in 1989. All the rest of those directors are known as drug czars. And you know how that war on drugs has been going.

Back in the mid-1990s, Mayor Bill Johnson named Van White as the city’s crime czar. White moved on and the title faded away. And I don’t need to remind you how much violence is still prevalent in the community today.

Nowadays czars are everywhere.

A few months ago, Philadelphia appointed a "gun czar" to take on the problem of gun crimes. Congressional Democrats are yelling for the president to create the position of "flu bug czar" to attack the possibility of an Asian Bird Flu epidemic. Plug the word into Google and you notice that headline writers have taken to using the word czar as shorthand for the leader of a government agency.

The czar appears when elected leaders want to look like they’re getting really, really, really serious about something. But it can also look like a bit of surrender by a government official.

"Medicaid czar" Carpenter, for example, wants to make changes that can only be made with state approval: changes to managing prescription drugs and rule changes to require some recipients to work.

So unlike the emperors of yore, Carpernter’s role can only be that of lobbyist, someone who depends on others to make the change real.

And, of course, that has been how the county has defined the problem of its systemic budget shortfall. Most of the nearly billion Monroe County budget is mandated by Albany, cry county leaders. In the county budget, they say that more than three quarters of the spending is mandated – out of their control.

But the rest is not – about $214 million. So why not show Albany how it’s done with what’s left? After all, the budget also shows that the controllable spending (the so-called non-mandated spending) rose at a slightly higher rate than the mandated.

Why not take those funds and build from the ground up?

Remember the phrase "zero-based budgeting?" It’s the one embraced by fiscal conservatives. It basically means that instead of using prior funding levels from government departments as the starting point for crafting a budget… you start from zero.

Then you make every budget item justify itself.

Some talk the game of zero-based budgeting, but rarely do it. Because it can mean that some departments get big cuts while others gain more money. That makes government employees angry.

But a budget is the grandest political document of all. It’s not about dollars and cents… it’s really about that government leader’s priorities. A true embrace of zero-based budgeting would allow the government leader to make his or her priorities the number one determinant. And if reigning in the spending is a high-priority, this would allow more room to show that.

A czar might be nice, may sound tough. But it’s the zero that will truly show the intentions of a government.

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