Three Guys in a Room

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By Alan S. Chartock

So these three guys walk into a room. That sounds like the beginning of a joke, but it turns out that this meeting is anything but funny. The first man in the room is Speaker Sheldon Silver of the New York State Assembly. He’s the Empire State’s senior serving politician. He’s a canny, brilliant, politically astute guy who, up to now, has known how to win elections.

He is connected to the New York State power brokers and their lobbyists, like the teachers union, and he doesn’t break the paradigm of power. He isn’t about to change the game plan, even when confronted with the likes of former New York City Mayor Ed Koch. Koch, one of the great political phonies of all time, has a penchant for grabbing good issues and riding them. This time, it’s reform of the “dysfunctional” Legislature.

When really pressed, Silver gives a little to the forces of reform in the State Capitol. There are a number of ways to do that. One is to make a good bill into a lukewarm bill that will change little or nothing. That’s exactly what he did with the call for ethics reform. Gov. David Paterson correctly vetoed that joke.

Another Silver specialty has been the famous “one house bill” that he knows will never be passed in the other house. This used to be very easy when the other house was controlled by the Republicans. Now the State Senate is controlled by a group of pathetically inept Democrats who can’t get their act together, so the game is a little more difficult.

The Senate Dems’ leader is John Sampson, and he’s the second man in the room. Like his hero, that other Sampson, he has tremendous strength but is likely to be given a haircut by others in his Democratic Senate conference who just can’t seem to master the skill of playing well together. Sampson was chosen by his conference to pick up the pieces after a group un-herdable cats, among them the infamous crew of Hiram Monserrate, Pedro Espada and Malcolm Smith, came very close to committing hari-kari before our very eyes. Sampson has the respect of many internal players, but the public’s initial impression of the Senate’s ineptitude has been so lasting that no matter how much perfume they put on, the stench persists.

Sampson and Silver recently went along with Paterson’s plan to furlough state workers. A federal judge put that plan on hold and now they are hated by the unions and have little to show for their efforts.

Finally, there is Paterson, the third man in the room. He isn’t running for reelection and he knows that the way to political salvation and historical canonization is doing the right thing. His state is broke and he is trying to get civil servants to forgo pay raises. He is hopelessly outclassed by Andrew Cuomo, who is waiting in the wings but who won’t indicate what needs to be done to right the ship of state. So Paterson has put the spotlight on the Legislature and is holding tough, unable to make the other two guys come up with a plan that will allow New York to live within its means. Come January, he will be out of office and he will smell clean. The newspapers tell him that he’s doing right, but castigate him for being inept. He’s a good guy who deserves more support for what he is trying to do.

In the meantime, back in that room, chaos prevails. The reality is that the state is broke. The little boy who cried wolf is about to be eaten by that very same animal and everyone assumes that somehow this will turn out all right. As William Bendix would have said in The Life of Riley, “What a revoltin’ development.”

Alan S. Chartock is president and CEO of WAMC/Northeast Public Radio and an executive publisher at The Legislative Gazette.

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