Sunday, September 19, 2004

Waiting for the Revolt

New York Sun Staff Editorial
September 17, 2004

New York's state government has operated so poorly for so long that the dedicated citizens who pay attention to what goes on at Albany tend to seize on the merest sign of hope. So it was with the results of Tuesday's primary elections, in which three - count 'em - three incumbent legislators lost the nomination of their own party, which effectively turns them out of office at the end of the year.

This was, indeed, higher than average. In the past 22 years, only 30 other lawmakers have failed to win re-election. Also, the outcomes of two Senate primaries in New York City - for the seat formerly occupied by Republican Guy Velella of the Bronx and the seat currently occupied by Republican Olga Mendez of Spanish Harlem - have convinced minority Democrats that they will gain two seats on the majority Republicans in November.

Another eight lawmakers chose not to run again this fall, and two - Velella and Assemblyman Roger Green of Brooklyn - gave up their seats upon being convicted of crimes. Even if Green wins his office back, as seems likely, there are likely to be at least 14 new faces among the 212 solons who muster at the state Capitol in January. It is tempting to see this turnover as a repudiation of the Legislature's recent performance, which was even more execrable than usual.

The Assembly and Senate, after all, failed to approve a budget until August 11, more than four months into the new fiscal year, adding a week to the record for the latest spending plan in history. They dithered their way past a court-imposed deadline to overhaul the financing of public schools. They failed to compromise on many of their self-imposed priorities, such as rethinking the long prison sentences imposed on drug criminals. New York University's Brennan Center for Justice chose 2004 as the year to publish its study identifying Albany as the most dysfunctional state government in the union.

We wish we could look upon the defeats handed to incumbents on Tuesday as slaps to the faces of the Albany leadership. However, we see scant evidence for such a reading. To begin with,51 members of the Legislature, or almost a quarter, will, come November, face no opponent from a major party. Most of those with opposition represent such safe seats that party primaries were the best chance to dislodge them. Only 30 of the 202 incumbents seeking re-election faced a major party primary, and 27 won.

Further examination of the three upsets reminds us of Tip O'Neill's celebrated harrumph about all politics being local. Assemblyman Robert Straniere of Staten Island, one of New York City's lonely Republican representatives at Albany, lost to a challenger, Vincent Ignizio, who was endorsed by the borough's GOP leadership. As members of a 47-member minority in a 150-seat house, neither Mr. Straniere nor Mr. Ignizio, unfortunately, can be expected to have much impact.

In Flushing, businessman Jimmy Meng defeated Assemblyman Barry Grodenchik, a freshman Democrat. Mr. Meng, who is likely to become the first Asian-American member of the Legislature, based his victory on an ethnic appeal that we do not find particularly edifying - and certainly has nothing to do with shaking up the Capitol.

The clearest sign of discontent with the Albany status quo came in Nassau County, where a Glen Cove city councilman, Charles Lavine, ousted Assemblyman David Sidikman. Mr. Lavine won with the considerable help of the Democratic county executive, Thomas Suozzi, who founded a Fix Albany political action committee with the express purpose of unseating go-along-to-get-along legislators of both parties.

Mr. Suozzi, who is targeting Republican senators Carl Marcellino and Dean Skelos in the general election, is setting himself up as the leader of a tax revolt. The way Albany manages Medicaid and public education, he rightly points out, shifts much of the cost to local government and goes a long way to explaining why local taxes in New York are 72% above the national average.

Mr. Lavine, in Mr. Suozzi's telling, is Paul Revere awakening patriots to the problem of "taxation without representation," while complacent politicians such as Mr. Sidikman ally themselves with the king. He compares the outcome of Tuesday's primary to the colonists' victory at Lexington and Concord. While we think Mr. Suozzi's critique of Albany's spendthrift ways falls a bit short - he says nothing about cutting Medicaid or education funding, only limiting the local share - we wish him luck at Bunker Hill.


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