Monday, January 11, 2010

Reforming Albany: Why Term Limits Are Worth Fighting For

After two years of scandals in our state government that have ranged from the embarrasing to the bizarre, I have concluded that the only way to really reform the New York State legislature is to impose term limits on our Assemblymembers and State Senators. That’s why I’m asking you to join me in signing up to the Facebook fan page “Citizens for Term Limits in Albany” and spreading the word about how we as citizens can act to clean up the corruption that has made “dysfunctionalism” synonymous with our state government.

I do not propose this remedy to the great problems New York faces without deep deliberation. Fundamentally, like many of you, I am opposed to term limits. Philosophically, I believe that we should have the right as citizens to elect whoever we want to govern us for as long as we want them to serve.

But what upends my basic opposition to term limits in the case of our Assemblymembers and State Senators, is the fact that our electoral system in New York State demonstrably and egregiously favor incumbents, to the degree that 98% of our legislators get reelected, despite the fact that a significant majority of New Yorkers disapprove of the job they’re doing and don’t think their local legislator deserves to stay in office.

Those who understand the mechanics of Albany rightfully point out that passing term limits is a near impossibility since it would require our State Senators and Assemblymembers to vote against their own self-interest. Certainly, the likelihood of this occurring is slim. As former New York City Parks Commissioner and good government guru Henry Stern puts it, expecting Albany to police itself is like asking Wall Street to draw up the rules that govern the financial industry. The fact is our State legislators have run roughshod over any checks to their power for so long that they wouldn’t know how to change direction even if they magically developed the will to do so.

But just because the road to term limits is uphill, let us not be deterred from walking it. All of the greatest reforms in history seemed improbable at best. How many people in this country believed even three years ago that it was truly possible for the United States to elect an African-American President? How many Americans believed at the dawn of our great civil rights movements, be they on behalf of women, blacks, immigrants, or gays, that they would ever have a chance of succeeding? It is only through the determination of the masses and the collective belief that injustices should never stand that we triumph in making our city, our state, and our country a better place to live.

Perhaps it shocks you that I conflate electoral reform with our proud civil rights movements, but it shouldn’t. Electoral reform was, and is, central to all of our battles for fairness. If the people are denied the fundamental right to elect who we want to represent us and our vote is manipulated so as not to count as it should, then the democracy and the republic that we hold so dear to our hearts as Americans exists only in rhetoric.

In New York, our electoral law was written deliberately to take power out of the hands of the people and place it squarely in the control of our elected officials. Nowhere in the 50 states is it more difficult for a candidate to get on the ballot to oppose an incumbent than in New York. An arcane and deliberately complex system of petitioning derails most would-be reformers from getting on the ballot. The rest get caught up in court challenges, presided over by judges who owe their careers to the incumbents, and financial hurdles that trip up anyone without a Bloomberg size bankroll.

On top of these challenges, our state legislators draw the lines of electoral districts to favor their reelection bids. Our tax dollars pay for our legislators to send out free campaign literature under the guise of newsletters – a particularly insidious practice called “franking”. And our incumbents insure that they have far superior name recognition – often the deciding factor in local races – by plastering their names across our garbage cans, public building projects, and anything else to which they can attach themselves. Add in the advantages of uneven media coverage and the millions of dollars in discretionary funds our state legislators give out to buy the loyalties of local institutions and it becomes clear why the odds of dethroning our Assemblymembers and State Senators is next to nil, even when their girlfriends' faces are slashed, they have journalists beaten up for investigating them, or they plunder the coffers of Little Leagues – all of which our state legislators have done in the past few years alone.

Enough is enough. The recent promise by our State legislators to reform themselves is nothing more than a smokescreen plotted to dull the mounting anger of the people. We cannot let ourselves be fooled by these cynical machinations. Nor can we dupe ourselves into thinking that the gross systemic failures of our government can be fixed in tangential baby steps. We must stand together and insist on bold action.

The internet has given us an extraordinary and unprecedented tool of grassroots organizing and education. Blogs and social networking sites have empowered us with the resource to make our voice heard at a decibel so loud it cannot be silenced, no matter how much the powers that be try. In less than a month, 100,000 New Yorkers have rallied together in a Facebook fan page to oppose the elimination of student fare Metrocards. This may not seem like such a great number in a City of 8 million people, but when you consider that only 125,000 people voted for John Liu in the recent election for New York City Comptroller – the second highest office in the Big Apple! – and only 225,000 overall, you begin to get a sense of how the people can regain their say in government by banding together. If those 100,000 New Yorkers all vote as a bloc and get their loved ones to join them, they will decide virtually every election in the City the way they want.

Above all our State legislators are in power because of the ignorance and apathy of the people. When we don’t vote, they win. That’s why it is the responsibility of all of us proud New Yorkers who love our State and want it to be a model for the rest of the country to follow to share our knowledge of how it can be improved with our friends, family, and anyone else who will listen.

So, please join me right now in logging on to Facebook and joining the “Citizens for Term Limits in Albany” fan page. As members, we will be able to communicate, organize, and empower each other to take back our government and insist that our elected officials represent our interests, instead of their own.

Friday, June 12, 2009

For the Record, Mr. Lopez, I Love the Kings County Democratic Party

Last night, as he stepped from the dais at the annual Seneca Club Dinner in Greenpoint, Brooklyn Democratic boss Vito Lopez leered at me, extended his club of a hand, and said, "So, you're the guy who hates the Kings County Democratic Party."

I must admit that I didn't retort with any pithy zinger, though a slew of them suddenly snapped into my mind. In part, it was because I was caught off-guard that Vito - with whom I had never before exchanged two words - knew who I was without my even introducing myself. Certainly, I was aware that quite a few people read the Brooklyn Optimist and that I have made no secret of my opposition to Mr. Lopez's iron-fisted rule of our borough, but I was surprised to discover that Vito is apparently one of my loyal readers.

What really made me hold my tongue, however, was that I realized in the course of my split-second reflection that Vito's accusation was misplaced. I don't hate the Kings County Democratic Party. In fact, I love it.

Why else would I have spent long hours over the last couple of years exposing in my blog our elected officials' confounding, and often corrupt, machinations? Why else would I have run successfully to represent my swath of Greenpoint as a County Committee Member in the Brooklyn Democratic Party? Why else would I have proudly joined Gerald Esposito in his City Council campaign to purge our party of do-nothing machine candidates like Diana Reyna and Maritza Davila and bring about real change in Brooklyn? Why else would I have spent priceless hours away from my lovely wife and baby to fight to reform Brooklyn politics?

It is because I hold the core belief that dissent in the face of injustice and inequity is the foundation of our democracy. Or as our great Senator Robert Kennedy put it, "The sharpest criticism often goes hand in hand with the deepest idealism and love of country."

From time to time, I get letters from readers questioning how I can call myself an optimist, while at the same time detailing so many causes for cynicism. Invariably, I respond that it is my unwavering conviction that no matter how bleak New York politics may be, that somehow, some way, together, we can fix it and restore integrity to City Hall and Albany that truly makes me an optimist.

It is a sad old game of party bosses to insist that blind fealty to their rule is the only way to pledge allegiance to one's party. But what Vito Lopez calls "hate", I call "hope". By casting light upon our party's darkness, I do not aim to destroy our party, but to demand that our party be better.

Contrary to popular belief, the Kings County Democratic Party doesn't belong to Vito Lopez. It belongs to you and me. It is not just our right to assert our leadership of our party, it is our duty.

Once again, I differ to the eloquence of Senator Robert Kennedy, "We know full well the faults of our democracy - the handicaps of freedom - the inconvenience of dissent. But I know of no American who would not rather be a servant in the imperfect house of Freedom, than be a master of all the empires of tyranny."

Well, perhaps that's not true about Mr. Lopez, but certainly it's true about me.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Obama Power Gives Rise To Recession Fair

The Optimist is proud to be friends with Ellen Enders, one of Greenpoint's brightest neighborhood activists and a driving force behind The Recession Survival Fair (also one of the funniest people on earth).

Ellen conceived The Recession Survival Fair along with some of her fellow alumni of the Brooklyn for Barack juggernaut, who wanted to do more than just pay lip service to the President's call for service.

The Recession Survival Fair will be a non-partisan community service event to assist Brooklyn and New York City residents in tackling the challenges springing from the economic recession. Attendees will have free access to important information and professional help on a range of relevant topics, including healthcare, food and nutrition, job search, debt and personal finance, and tenants’ rights and foreclosure.

Who doesn't need at least one of those things these days?

Here's your chance to get all of them for FREE!

On top of that, DKMS, the world's largest bone marrow donor center, will also be conducting a drive for potential donor matches. All help will be provided free of charge, although participants will also be invited to offer their own expertise to the community in exchange.

This event gets the Optimist's absolute highest stamp of approval and makes him feel warm and fuzzy all over. This is really bringing change to Brooklyn!

Here's the 4 Ws:

Who: Brooklyn for Barack (718-757-8572) in association with The Stuyvesant Heights Parents Association

What: Recession Survival Fair, to provide professional info and help to Brooklyn and New York City residents hurt by the economic recession

When: Saturday, June 6, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Where: Mount Lebanon Baptist Church, 230 Decatur St. (near Lewis Ave.) in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn

And an H:

How: Subway: A, C to Utica Ave; Bus: B15 to Bainbridge Street; B25, B26 to Lewis Avenue; B43, B46 to MacDonough Street.

Friday, May 29, 2009

The Responsibility of the Blogger

While America may boast the best paid bloggers, it certainly doesn't have the most important. That distinction goes to bloggers like Hao Wu of China, who was imprisoned for 140 days for writing about “subversive subjects online”, and Omid Reza Mirsayafi, a 29-year-old cultural blogger who died under mysterious circumstances in an Iranian jail after being sentenced to two years for insulting “the Supreme Guide Ayatollah Khomeini”.

These so-called “cyberdissidents” weren’t writing fiery polemics online calling for the overthrow of their country – quite to the contrary, they dared to write the truth about their oppressive governments, usually couched in satire to tone down the sting of their reporting. They knew full well the danger of writing what their newspapers were afraid or forbidden to print, but they understood that it was their responsibility to their country, the international community, and themselves, to use the most powerful mode of communication in the world to expose injustice and call for change.

While we can breathe a sigh of relief that America is not a tyrannical state like China or Iran, we should not be so quick to pat ourselves on the back. According to Reporters Without Borders’ 2008 analysis, the United States ranks a dismal 36th among the world’s nations for freedom of the press and the “efforts made by the authorities to respect and ensure respect for this freedom.” America’s ranking ties it with Bosnia and Herzegovina, Cape Verde, South Africa, Spain, and Taiwan, and sets us behind considerably behind countries like Namibia (tied for #23), Latvia (tied for #7), and Luxembourg (tied for #1).

Some may dismiss this ranking as another shameful legacy of the Bush years, but we are almost certain to once again tumble lower on this list under the Obama Administration as the nation’s newspapers quickly perish and the few surviving news sources fall victim to both devastating newsroom cutbacks and media consolidation.

However, while it may well be too late to save our newspapers, it is not too late to save journalism. That’s where bloggers come in.

At this year’s Brooklyn Blogfest, hundreds of bloggers from New York City came together to discuss “why we blog”. Some bloggers said their motivation was self-expression; others wanted to focus on an interest; and Jake Dobkin, founder of The Gothamist, got the strongest response by offering strategies to make money from blogging.

Unfortunately, all of these reasons are tantamount to teaching a student how to write great poetry, and then telling that student they should use their newfound gift to get a job writing greeting cards.

What is extraordinary about the Blogfest is that it brings together hundreds of passionate, thoughtful, observant, and talented writers and photographers, who are concerned for their communities and the welfare of the people around them. What is a failure of the event is that the bloggers are never told that together we outnumber the reporters at the New York Times and if we were all worked together as citizen journalists we could rival its worldwide influence.

Hao Wu and Omid Reza Mirsayafi understood intuitively the responsibility of blogging. They realized that blogging is a force so powerful that it can even stand up to Big Brother. Information, discussion, investigation – these are the core foundational components of democracy. Blogging is the most extraordinary tool in the history of media because it is the only weapon that truly levels the playing field between the haves and the have-nots and lets independent reporters write on a platform as accessible to the public as the largest television network.

As yesterday article’s “How Politicians and their Publicists Took Over the Press” from the True News blog made clear, the death of newspapers and the shrinking of America’s media has allowed politicians, developers, unscrupulous CEOs, and their ilk “to spin, scheme, and steal with impunity”.

The only recourse the citizens of this country have is to speak out wherever there is silence and ask questions whenever the explanations we are given are inadequate. Blog about the shady building going up on your block, blog about how your local elected official never returns your calls, blog about the sorry state of your child’s school.

Write the stories that are unwritten, and write the stories that have already been written better. If you do so, your fellow bloggers will follow your lead and eventually all of us might have the information we need to really know what’s going on in our world.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Council Candidate Steve Levin: Bored by Nydia, Unenthused by Reform

Though the Optimist used his post yesterday to sneak over the Pulaski Bridge from his home in Greenpoint and weigh in on Queens politics, rest assured, dear readers, that doesn't mean he has stopped paying attention to the important affairs of his own community.

Quite to the contrary, the Optimist has been keeping careful watch on the Council race to succeed David Yassky. That's why David Michaelson's account of this weekend's Central Brooklyn Independent Democrats (CBID) Annual Dinner was of particular interest to him.

The following is an excerpt from Michaelson's (a.k.a. Mole333) account of the event, in which he describes Council candidate Steve Levin's reaction to our Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez's speech about the excitment of the new Obama Administration. If you've never heard Levin's name, you may have nonetheless seen him joined at the hip to his boss Vito Lopez. Personally, every time I see Levin, who is in his late 20s, he strikes me as a person who has sacrificed his youth to the cold, calculating cynicism of old age. I'll let you decide for yourself. Here's Mole:

An interesting side note was that Steve Levin, Vito Lopez's candidate for the 33rd City Council district (where I have endorsed Jo Anne Simon) was in attendence. I was across the room from him during Nydia's speech on helping small businesses and on the thrill of being a Democat with Obama as President. I was struck at how bored and unenthusiastic he seemed on these subjects. I had heard that, despite being Vito Lopez's pick for the seat, he was a nice, decent guy. Yet there he was looking like a teenager someone had dragged to a political event, bored and surly. He would pointedly not clap or clap sarcastically while everyone else was enthusiastically applauding Nydia and Obama. What was up with him?

Then I realized. It was the fact that he WAS Vito Lopez's kid, and Vito Lopez HATES Nydia Velazquez. You'd think Levin would prefer, at a reform Democrat event like CBID's dinner, to show he is NOT so intimately linked to the corrupt Vito Lopez, but instead he chose to emphasize that Vito's petty grudges are his petty grudges.

Either that or he just had indigestion. But the impression he made was not a good one at a moment when the rest of the crowd was quite enthusiastic as progressives and as Democrats.

Monday, March 23, 2009

McLaughlin, Monserrate and Seminerio: Where's the Outrage?

This morning I read a quote in the union newspaper The Chief that made me mad:

"Brian McLaughlin was a colleague and a close friend," said United Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, "and this is a sad day for him, his family, and the labor movement."

For those of you who don't know Brian McLaughlin, he is the former Queens Assemblyman and New York City AFL-CIO Central Labor Council President, who plead guilty on March 7th to federal racketeering charges, so that instead of facing 30+ years in prison, he'll likely only end up with 8 to 10.

McLaughlin's crimes were particularly despicable. He ripped off $2.2 million from union members and City taxpayers to spend on stuff like a luxury house on Long Island, a Mercedes Benz, and country club fees. He even plundered money from a Little League set up for the children of union members. To quote the same Chief article, when McLaughlin learned that one of his corrupt confederates had spent $2,800 on equipment for the kids rather than stealing it all, McLaughlin lashed out: "[A]ll that fucking money he's fucking spending on other stuff, that ain't his money ... that's mine."

Nice guy, huh?

You'd think so from the tone of Randi Weingarten's aforementioned quote in The Chief. Weingarten makes it sound like McLaughlin was a good person who somehow lost his way and carelessly fell into bilking Little Leaguers. I wonder if she would publicly express the same messianic compassion for Bernard Madoff.

Now, the intention of this post is not to criticize Weingarten. She is merely representative of a political power structure that hardly ever breaks rank to criticize its members, even when they are deserving of our utmost scorn and contempt.

How bad does an elected official have to be to provoke criticism from their colleagues? These days it seems like that there's no crime a politician can commit that is so heinous that their party's leaders bother to condemn them.

Take Congressman Joe Crowley, the head of the Queens Democratic Party. Crowley was one of the Congressmen who expressed moral outrage last week at A.I.G. execs for receiving millions in bonuses. Surely, if Crowley could muster so much anger over legal bonuses, he must have blown his top when he learned his longtime friend Brian McLaughlin had admitted to stealing over two million bucks from innocent people.

What was Crowley's comment on McLaughlin's crimes? Over two weeks after McLaughlin's guilty plea, he still hasn't made one. (And why hasn't the press demanded one?)

But then again, neither has any other elected official from Queens. Or any Citywide politician, for that matter. What about the candidates for Mayor, Comptroller, or the ombudsman of the people, Public Advocate? Not a word.

Sadly, this is an all-too-familiar silence. Not one politician stood up to condemn disgraced Queens Assemblyman Anthony Seminerio either when he was arrested last September for allegedly using a dummy consulting firm to take $500,000 in payoffs from people seeking his favor in Albany. According to the indictment, Seminerio, a 30-year incumbent, was caught on tape explaining the rationale for his scheme: “I was doing favors for these sons-of-bitches there, you know, they were—they were making thousands. ‘Screw you, from now on, you know, I’m a consultant.’”

Even State Senator Hiram Monserrate has escaped public reproach from his colleagues. Monserrate, who recently leapt from the City Council to the Senate, made the front page of every paper in the city in December when he was arrested for allegedly slashing his girlfriend with a broken glass during a fight. The incident wasn't the first blow to the beleaguered State Senator from Queens. Monserrate was already embroiled in an investigation into a highly dubious nonprofit he directed $250,000 in City money to called Libre, which was run by Julissa Ferreras, his former chief of staff and successor to his Council seat.

How did Senate Majority Leader Malcolm Smith punish Monserrate, who was indicted this morning on felony assault charges? By throwing him a fundraiser last week!

What did the Working Families Party do to chastise Ferreras for her role in Libre? They endorsed her bid for City Council.

The fact that our politicians, for one reason or another, have collectively decided that it is either inappropriate or, worse, inexpedient to denounce their colleagues-turned-criminals is morally repugnant. When politicians ignore the profound injury done to society when the public trust is violated, they minimize this most serious of crimes in the eyes of the people and send a tacit message to other corrupt elected officials not to worry because their party will be behind them no matter what.

They also perpetuate an environment where district attorneys feel no pressure to investigate their fellow electeds. The whole system becomes a polite détente, governed by the cynical principle that one hand whitewashes the other.

This system works just fine for party insiders and our elected officials, but it damns the rest of us to endure a government stripped of accountability, transparency, and courage.

Another Great Event: Brooklyn Food Conference 2009

If you're as concerned about what you and your loved ones eat as your friendly neighborhood (vegetarian) Optimist, you should check out the Brooklyn Food Conference for FREE on May 2nd, 2009 at John Jay High School and PS 231 at 237 7th Avenue in Park Slope.

It sounds like a great event. Here's what the release says:

Food issues hit home for all of Brooklyn–from school lunches or the rise in diabetes, escalating food costs, immigration or farmers markets, local food challenges and delights, food touches us all. Come join us to learn from experts and our neighbors about all the ways our Food System affects us and how you can get involved.

The conference is co-sponsored by the Park Slope Food Coop, World Hunger Year, Brooklyn Rescue Mission, Caribbean Women’s Health Association, and Brooklyn’s Bounty.

Start the day with a New Orleans-style parade featuring massive puppets! Then participate in workshops, food demos, and kids’ activities, and enjoy lunch, dinner, and a dance. The conference will be FREE to all participants.

Meet well-known activists and writers like Dan Barber, executive chef and owner of Blue Hill Restaurant, Anna Lappé, author of Grub: Ideas for an Urban Organic Kitchen, Raj Patel author of Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System and LaDonna Redmond, head of the Institute of Community Resource Development in Chicago.

Partners include over 50 organizations, including Just Food, CAMBA, Bed-Stuy Campaign Against Hunger, Center for the Urban Environment, Children’s Aid Society, Garden of Union, Grassroots Netroots Alliance, New York Coalition Against Hunger, East New York Farms, Restaurant Opportunity Center, United Food and Commercial Workers.

To register for the conference, click here.

Blogfest 2009: On Your Marks, Get Set, Blog!

Find out why Brooklyn is the bloggiest place in America at the Fourth Annual Brooklyn Blogfest on May 7, 2009 7 p.m. at powerHouse Arena in DUMBO.

Brooklyn Blogfest 2009 is an exciting, idea-filled event for bloggers, blog readers and the blog curious where you will find: Insight. Advice. Inspiration. Resources.

Here's your chance to meet your favorite bloggers (like the Optimist!); learn about blogging; be inspired to blog.

"Where better to take the pulse of this rapidly growing community of writers, thinkers and observers than the Brooklyn Blogfest?" ~ Sewell Chan, The New York Times

This year's event will take place on May 7, 2009 at 7 p.m. at the powerHouse Arena in DUMBO.

WHY WE BLOG will be the theme of a high-profile panel discussion. This year Brooklyn Blogfest introduces BLOGS-OF-A-FEATHER, special small-group sessions, where you can connect with other bloggers who share your interests.

Once again, there will a VIDEO TRIBUTE TO BROOKLYN'S PHOTO BLOGGERS and the annual SHOUT-OUT: a chance to share your blog with the world!

Whether you live to blog, blog to live or are just curious about this thing called blogging, you won't want to miss Brooklyn Blogfest 2009: the best Blogfest yet.

For more information and to register online go to

To find out about sponsorship opportunities for Brooklyn Blogfest, contact Louise Crawford (e:, c: 718-288-4290).

The Details:

Fourth Annual Brooklyn Blogfest
May 7, 2009
Doors open at 7 p.m.
powerHouse Arena
37 Main Street, Brooklyn, NY 11201
Admission: $10. ($5 for students and seniors)

Brooklyn Blogfest After-Party
Galapagos Art Space
16 Main Street, Brooklyn, NY 11201
(right across the street from powerHouse Arena)
Cash bar and refreshments

Brooklyn Blogfest 2009

Insight. Advice. Inspiration. Resources.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Happy St. Patrick's Day!

Although this video has its charms, I actually posted it, so you could appreciate some of the hilarious comments about it on Queens Crap. Enjoy!

Try JibJab Sendables® eCards today!

Brooklyn's Newest Blog: A Short Story

In honor of Bob Guskind, who often used The Gowanus Lounge to recognize Brooklyn's newest blogs, I want to take a moment to introduce our borough's newest blogger: Aaron Short.

Aaron's blog, A Short Story, is less than 12 hours old, but he's already been prolific, posting more articles today than some of us get down in a week - or even a month. It's no surprise to the Optimist that Mr. Short is approaching his new media prodigiously. If his name sounds familiar, that's because up until recently, Aaron was one of the star reporters for the Courier-Life chain of newspapers. If you've been to any type of community event in Greenpoint or Williamsburg in the last year, you've seen Aaron and his notepad. The man is ubiquitous.

So, just as Bob once welcomed me to cyberspace, I now extend the same warm greetings to Aaron Short. The Optimist expects many great things from Mr. Short, especially now that he's free from the shackles of print.

Don't Let Our Stimulus Money Go To Atlantic Yards!

Paying out $165 million in bonuses to those criminals at A.I.G. was enough of a kick in the ass this week. Don't let our tax dollars go to bailing out Bruce Rat-ner too.

Sign this petition to let Governor Paterson and Mayor Bloomberg know that we refuse to give one penny of our stimulus money to Forest City Ratner's Atlantic Yards project: