A Brief Shining Moment for the State GOP?

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You hear a guy like Assemblyman Patrick Manning talk and you understand the fault line running under the New York State Republican Party.

But you also wonder if the conservative passion of Manning (or John Faso or Randy Daniels – the other Republican Conservatives who want to be governor) will really work in the Empire State.

Recent history has shown that in the nation, a conservative underpinning has helped the Republican Party ascend. A piece on Salon.com gets at this. In the article about how President Bush might be alienating conservatives, Richard Viguerie – a conservative guru, talks about how conservative ideals became infused in the GOP ranks.

Viguerie, who helped get Ronald Reagan elected, said that every so often a Republican moderates fall foretold a conservative rise.

"If Ford had been elected in ’76, no way Ronald Reagan would have been elected president in 1980," Viguerie told Salon. "And for sure, if [George H.W.] Bush had been elected in ’92, no way you would have a Republican Congress in 1994."

Patrick Manning, the conservative from the Hudson Valley (and as tall as an NBA center), believes the same situation is playing out in New York.

He said that the New York Republicans have, for more than a decade now, failed to appeal to the base. Manning defines that base as the taxpayer advocates, the sportsman… and, what he calls, the "leave us alone coalition" or the people who want to get on with living day to day with the state government off their backs.

"Those people don’t get out of their La-Z-Boys’ for the Republican Party anymore," said Manning during an interview that will be aired on WXXI’s Need to Know this Friday (February 17).

And if conservatives nationally are getting soft on Bush – then just listen to Manning on Republican Gov. George Pataki.

Manning talked about how the GOP can’t put up someone who is "80 percent the Democratic Party." When he was then asked who he was talking about… Manning said some Republican legislative leaders and … the executive.

"I think that in a post Pataki era… we don’t need more of that," Manning said. And as the New York State Conservative Party to hear these candidates, you can bet that the former Massachusetts Governor Bill Weld, the favorite of GOP State Chairman Steve Minarik, will be hammered for being "more of that."

For Manning, this year represents what he called a "brief shining moment in time" for the Republican Party to embrace its base – to claim a vision once again. Someone who will slash at taxes, cut state government spending and stop raising New York’s debt.

No way would Manning (or Faso or Daniels for that matter) ever say that they look at 2006 as the year the conservatives reclaimed the Republican Party – but lost the general election.

But you have to wonder if they aren’t thinking about it as a longer-term reclamation project.

And Republicans like Manning will have to remind themselves of this – the last two Republican governors to be elected in New York will hardly be confused with Ronald Reagan.

The Judicial Ruling – The Momentum Slows

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Has the storm died down for the entrenched party faithful?

The Buffalo News has reported the inevitable – that state Supreme Court Judges along with officials from the Republican and Democrat parties are going to appeal the ruling that sought to end the way state Supreme Court Judge candidates are selected.

The report by Tom Precious said the move will likely push the case beyond this year’s elections, which means that a primary election for these judges will not replace the current system of conventions and delegates. Remember that a  U.S. District Court ruled the convention system is too closed and amounts to being unconstitutional.

The appeals come as the state’s Chief Judge Judith Kaye called for reforming the way these state Supreme Court judges are elected. But Kaye appeared to give the appeals some life by saying that she would not approve of a primary election unless there was public financing of candidates.  Instead it appeared she wanted to tinker with the current convention system.

And that brings us back to this – the New York State Legislature has the power to change election law when it comes to these judges. Will they continue to allow for judges to be quasi-candidates? (let me refer back to this entry for an explanation) Or will they decide that these judges should be elected or appointed, once and for all.

The cynic inside rises up right now and says nothing will change. A shame. But then again, maybe the Tom Cooks and Denny Farrells and Steve Minariks of the state feel better.

What do you think?

Bruno on the Loose (What was that about Bullies and Bloody Noses?)

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In what we hope will be a habit on the Political Notebook, Albany correspondent Karen DeWitt files this entry from the state capitol. Be ready for some talk by a leading figure in Albany circles about "bullies and bloody noses."

State Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno seems to be increasingly on the outs with fellow Republicans these days in Albany, New York City and even Washington.

Bruno is sure to annoy his sometimes Republican ally Governor George Pataki , by urging his house to override a veto by Governor Pataki of a bill that would have extended prescription drug coverage to seniors caught in the confusion over the new federal Medicare Part D program.  (Check out Karen’s story here).

The Senate Leader is also escalating a dispute with New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg. Bloomberg, as reported in the New York Times on Sunday, may back a Democratic candidate against Queens Republican Senator Serph Maltese, in retaliation for Maltese’s’ support of a conservative candidate against Bloomberg in the 2005 mayoral race.

The beleaguered Bruno is already struggling to hold on to the Republican Senate Majority. In a speech to a union group, Bruno first said that he didn’t believe the news reports, and suggested that the media was “hallucinating”.

He also said if the reports were somehow true, then the people reported to be working against Republican Senators would be “ingrates”.     At a question and answer session with reporters later, Bruno elaborated further (take a listen).

Meanwhile, the Senate leader has been creating controversy for remarks he made last week about the war in Iraq. Bruno said it’s time to bring the troops home. When asked about rumors that White House advisor Karl Rove had called Governor Pataki to complain, Bruno reiterated his views. The 76-year-old Senator made his comments while climbing the six flights of stairs to his Capitol office.

Thanks Karen… there appears to be no lack of entertaining conversation in Albany.

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.


"(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.