NY Pols and the Voters Who Hate Them

By MICHAEL GORMLEY
|  Saturday, Aug 22, 2009  |  Updated 4:30 PM EDT
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NY Pols and the Voters Who Hate Them

This guy's one of the biggest jokers.

You click open your job review from the boss and it says you're doing a lousy job, you aren't up to making tough decisions, and you're an embarrassment.
    
That's the review New Yorkers gave the state Legislature last week in a Quinnipiac University poll that found almost half of New Yorkers finally said even their senator deserves to be canned.

     That led to headlines like: Voters mad as hell, Throw the bums out, and Good Riddance!
    
The outrage came after the Senate gridlocked for a month this summer in a messy power struggle. It came after lawmakers raised more than $4 billion in taxes and fees on New Yorkers already snared in recession, while leaving powerful special interests mostly untouched. It came after three years that saw the comptroller resign for misusing staff, a governor quit in a prostitution scandal, the Senate Republican leader retire amid an FBI investigation, and a veteran Queens assemblyman plead guilty to fraud involving people doing business with the state.
    
Still, if you're a New York lawmaker and you get that kind of job review, you can probably relax.
    
Despite the serial scandals and resulting nationwide ridicule, the Quinnipiac poll found 40 percent of New Yorkers think their legislator should be re-elected in 2010.
    
"What struck me is they are split about being embarrassed,'' said Doug Muzzio, a politics professor at Baruch College. "I would have expected they'd be mortified.
    
"It says something about their standards and expectations of their politics -- it's really low,'' Muzzio said. "How many are going to get voted out next year? My bet is not that many.''
    
Albany didn't change much after the 2004 "reform'' legislative elections, when even 20-year veterans ran as reformers after a national study found the Legislature was the most dysfunctional in the country. It didn't change much, either, after the 2006 elections, when calls for reform were led by Democrat Eliot Spitzer.
    
Political science Professor Robert McClure of Syracuse University's Maxwell School said lawmakers have long survived voter outrage and maintained their 95-percent re-election rate in part because politics itself has changed. Voters used to see competitive races involving two parties offering their best. If the winner didn't work out, there was a viable option with a true ideological difference. Now, a politics of individual entrepreneurship has emerged from a system dominated by TV and radio ads and gerrymandering that stacks most incumbents' districts with their own party's voters. Each is powered by the patronage, taxpayer-paid newsletters, lobbyist campaign contributions and other perks of office. All of that discourages strong challengers and leads to legislators commonly serving decades with little or no opposition, despite public disdain for the Legislature at large.
    
"The whole pattern has atrophied over such a long time,'' McClure said. "Voters don't know to register their anger and they have no means.''
    
He said if voters don't find a way to send that message in the 2010 elections, after all this, "it's over.''
    
"I don't know anyone who isn't deeply embarrassed to live in this banana republic,'' McClure said. "Every legislator I know is scared. But if they survive, it won't mean anything.''
    
Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Group has been disappointed before when new depths of scandal prompted calls for reform.
    
"I think the public gets that Albany's a mess and the promises made in 2006, that there would be a new day, turned out to be a disaster,'' Horner said. "They have a low regard for elected officials as a class and Albany isn't even meeting those.''
    
But Horner insists he's an optimist.
    
"It's always darkest before the dawn,'' he said. "And it is now a lunar eclipse. It doesn't get any darker than this.''
    
Two days after the poll was released last week, a small political fight quietly played itself out in Queens.
    
Farouk Samaroo, 26, back just months ago from serving in the U.S. Army in Afghanistan, sued Democratic Gov. David Paterson. Samaroo wanted to run for a state Assembly seat vacated by Anthony Seminerio after 31 years when he pleaded guilty to fraud in June. The Democrat was accused of collecting $1 million from people who did business with the state.
    
Paterson set a Sept. 15 special election to fill the seat. That meant three Queens Democratic bosses would pick a party candidate to run for the seat in the heavily Democratic borough. Samaroo, a Democrat, asked a federal court to make Sept. 15 a primary, so voters could choose party nominees from several candidates. The winners would face off in November. Democrats argued that would take too long, and the 38th needed representation faster during a budget crisis.
    
Samaroo lost.
    
"It is a sad standard of New York state government in 2009,'' Samaroo said Friday. "There is absolutely no respect for the principles of good government and the principles on which this country was founded.''
    
He paused, and added: "It is the level of impunity that gets me.''

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