Analysis: Cuomo Can Break Incumbents' Albany Death Grip

With time running out, a new report released by Citizen's Union is a reminder of the need for redistricting reform.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo is the key to avoiding a political train wreck in Albany -- if no strong effort is made to change the law so that legislators don’t perpetuate themselves in office year after year without possibility of change.

By the end of January, the Legislature needs to decide whether to appoint an independent commission to redraw the lines of Senate and Assembly districts to give democracy a chance.

Cuomo has pledged to veto any plan that fails to be fair to all parties and potential candidates. Fairness is the key -- but if the Legislature continues to follow the path of its own history, it won’t happen. Every 10 years after the Census figures are in, Albany has a tradition of redrawing the district lines to favor the incumbents. Because of rigged district lines, most legislators are returned to office every 10 years. Nine out of 10 are reelected by margins of 10 points or more.

Dick Dadey of Citizens Union, a strong advocate of electoral reform, told me: “The governor has the ace in the hole. If he and the Legislature just kick the can down the road, nothing will change. But we have a unique opportunity now to effect great change. If we can’t negotiate an agreement by early February, the matter will go to the courts and the outcome will be uncertain.”

Because legislative races are so one-sided and predictable, thanks to control by the powers that be, voter participation has dropped to 35 percent, the fourth lowest in the country. As Daily News columnist Bill Hammond puts it: “The voters know a con when they smell one.”  He blames “Albany’s incumbent protection racket: the brazenly partisan gerrymandering of legislative districts.”

I spoke to former Mayor Ed Koch, who led a campaign called New York Uprising that got 184 of 212 legislators to sign pledges supporting an independent commission. Koch said: “I believe Andrew will veto any effort to keep things as they are. It’s going to wind up in court and I’m not sure how it will turn out. There is no law that prohibits incumbents from being favored."

Republican Dean Skelos, the majority leader of the State Senate, has a thin margin of just 32 to 30 votes.  Koch said “for Skelos, it’s not a matter of democracy being the issue. It’s life and death.”

“I’m hopeful we’ll prevail,” Koch says. “Democracy requires that the electorate select their candidates.”

But the old political warrior isn’t certain that will happen.

Is he an optimist? “No, I’m a realist,” Koch replied.

A decision must be made by early February. If the political bosses prevail, Albany in the next 10 years will be the same old Albany. If the reformers succeed -- and much depends on the judiciary -- then maybe the days of gridlock and immoral practices will end.

I wouldn’t bet on it, either way.

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