How does it go so wrong?
New Year’s Day each year is a day of optimism and hope, even if the weather is bitter cold and the roads icy; the turning of the page of a calendar into a new year signals another chance to make right what the old year got wrong. This is certainly true for personal resolutions: this is the year I will lose weight; this is the year I will learn a foreign language, etc. All things are possible.
Two-plus years ago, January 1, 2007 was the Inauguration Day for Governor Eliot Spitzer – the actual “Day One” he spoke of during his 2006 campaign where “everything changes.” The 2006 statewide elections gave the Democrats control of every statewide office, and within a few seats of control of the New York State Senate. This January, after the 2008 elections, a new Democratic Senate majority was born, after 44 years of Republican rule. The Dems won 32 of 62 seats, and promised to bring the first significant change in the state legislature in either house in decades.
Last Monday night (June 22) I had the time to contemplate these things as I sat on the floor of the State Assembly in a marathon session, lasting until 2 am, as our chamber voted on a raft of bills on the last scheduled day of the 2009 Legislative session. Over the course of that night, I voted for bills I believed in – a new ethics oversight structure, consumer protections, campaign finance reforms – and voted “no” on others I didn’t agree with. For better or worse, we worked deep into the night, legislating. But in between the votes, while mundane discussions occurred on some of the bills, I wondered how things had gone so wrong.
Down the hallway, the Senate was silent. I attended an off-the-floor committee meeting to consider a last-minute bill for Suffolk County, knowing that my electorate back home in Larchmont or Mamaroneck could care less about this action, but that somebody somewhere in a place I’ve never been to – Happauge? Riverhead? – cared deeply about this provision.
I considered what the feelings were out in front of the CVS on Chatsworth Avenue, or across the street at Stan’z where I get an occasional Sunday breakfast, about what was happening here in Albany. Who would stop me to chat about these things when I next stand in front of the Stop’n'Shop near Weaver Street, or the next time I pop into a St. Augustine’s Seniors event, or attend the Summit at The Nautilus Diner?
Assuming we all run once again, I will face those faces in Larchmont and Mamaroneck and elsewhere – and on a much broader canvass, the statewide electorate will address new Governor David Paterson, new Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, new Comptroller Tom DiNapoli, all holding positions they didn’t have as of Day One, 2007. We will do so in a climate of disgust and cynicism, as people who have substantial careers watch a soap opera of power, and lust for power, play out, during difficult economic times, with each one’s own well-being at stake.
Sometimes, it’s hard for me to hold onto optimism and hope, as much as it is for every citizen cynical of Albany.
So, how does it go so wrong?
Because some of us, Democrat and Republican, love power itself more than public accomplishment.
Because directing monies to favor friends, and withholding same from opponents is more important than finding common ground.
Because extreme ideologies of the right and left hate the middle ground of compromise as much as they hate each other.
Because re-election trumps all, even principle.
Because personal vendettas must be settled.
Yet, self-governance in our American democracy still offers us the best method of governing. Wounded, despised Albany sometimes reflects exactly who we are: some of us battling without desire to give or receive quarter on issues from the economic impacts of environmental protections, to same-sex marriage, to battles over tort law provisions. The ethnic resentments and competition that exist in polyglot New York exist, too, in the legislature of representatives of that New York. The unwillingness to give in is not confined to politicians alone.
The change starts with each of us, me and you, in what we care about regarding government and politics. Will we care about the substance of policy, and not just the symbolism of politics? Will we look past both attack ads and puffery, to try to discern what is the reality of officials usually so far down the totem pole that they’re ignored – until they become the pivotal player in a drama like this? Will we encourage and support those who seek compromise and accomplishment instead of encourage those who stubbornly hold out against all odds? Will we, on election days to come, hear the quiet voices of reason, or the voices of those with bombastic rhetoric that might entertain us, but never enlighten us?
Every day is a new day; every day can be “January 1st.” We can turn the page, but only if we truly want to.
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