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.