The New York Uprising begins

By Ed Koch

Last Friday, at the New York City offices of my law firm, Bryan Cave LLP, for a group of us, the New York Uprising began.

A hundred men and women came together to commit themselves to the overhaul of the New York State Legislature, which the Brennan Center for Justice appropriately called “dysfunctional” six years ago, and which has alarmingly deteriorated since.  The Legislature in Albany is an abysmal failure and a disgrace to the Empire State.

The New York Uprising was convened by Dick Dadey of the Citizens Union, Henry Stern of New York Civic and myself. The purpose for the meeting was a brainstorming session aimed at developing a strategy for reforming the state Legislature, both the Assembly and Senate.

Compounding New York’s government problem is its nonfunctional governor, who is beset with allegations that he may have committed a crime by swearing falsely before the New York State Commission on Public Integrity, as well as allegations of possible obstruction of justice now being investigated by the New York State attorney general.  The latter recused himself from the investigation — he is a perceived candidate for the office of governor in the November election — and selected Judith Kaye, retired chief justice of the New York Court of Appeals, to oversee the investigation by the attorney general’s staff.

Attending the March 12 meeting were Frank Baraff and Brian Keeler, leaders of a coalition of New Yorkers called “Reboot New York,” who are organizing Upstate and Long Island citizens to push for reform in Albany. Other citizen-based organizations are being established around the city and state, including Unshackle Upstate, headed by Brian Sampson, as well as various reform-minded groups of business people. Five respected good-government groups — the Brennan Center for Justice, Citizens Union, Common Cause NY, League of Women Voters/NYS and N.Y. Public Interest Research Group — have organized to address Albany reform.  The Westchester County Association, led by former Lieutenant Governor Al Del Bello and Bill Mooney, is taking up the effort in Westchester.

By the November election, my hope is that literally millions of New Yorkers who have had it with the status quo — dysfunctional government — will join the uprising and become involved in these reform efforts. New York, according to the last census, has 19,460,000 residents. My belief is that a huge number are fed up with their representatives in Albany and want to change New York politics.

At the meeting last Friday, a suggestion was made that our group adopt a number of good-government objectives and make them known, not only to the Legislature, but to all New Yorkers. In 1977, a similar approach was taken by Reverend Leon Sullivan, whose anti-apartheid principles were adopted by millions of people in the U.S. and thousands of businesses. The so-called Sullivan Principles helped bring down the South African all-white regime and bring about the election of Nelson Mandela as president of that country.

I have said in the past, “Throw the bums out — the good and the bad — because the good aren’t good enough and the bad are evil.” Regrettably, that goal is simply not doable. Instead, an effort should be made to get incumbents to publicly agree to implement a code of good-government principles.  Those who will not agree, or those who agree but unjustifiably fail to take necessary action, will be held to account.

Selecting those principles will not be an easy task. The most effective campaign is waged when there is a single principle to fight for, but that is impossible when so many good-government advocates are involved, a number of whom have different priorities. I believe the three most important principles are: (a) redistricting; (b) balancing the budget; and (c) ethics oversight and enforcement. In my view, the state Legislature must create an impartial board to draw the lines of the new election districts required as a result of the 2010 census.  Unless this is done, the Assembly and Senate will draw lines that will all but guarantee the election of incumbents over challengers and the continued control of the Legislature by the party in power in each House.

A second and perhaps the most favored reform proposal of most New Yorkers — Democrat, Republican and independent — relates to the budget.  New York State currently has an estimated $9.5 billion deficit in the budget required by law to be adopted by April 1. New Yorkers now accept that you can’t spend money you don’t have, and they believe that imposing new taxes on already overtaxed individuals and businesses is not the way to go, particularly while we are trying to recover from a deep recession. So we should be urging the adoption of a balanced budget, on time, now and in the future, without the imposition or increase of burdensome new taxes.

Third, we should demand stronger ethics oversight and tighter enforcement. The Legislature is rife with conflicts of interest, inappropriate outside employment and relationships with companies doing business with the state

Throughout my career in government, and now out of government, I have always believed that public service is the noblest of professions, if done honestly and well. Our Legislature fails on both counts.

The uprising has begun. Our progress will be demonstrated this November in the election. If you or your friends want to join the citizen army and participate in this important work, let me know at eikoch@bryancave.com . If you do, we will be in touch.