Tuesday, November 5, 2013

5 Things to Watch in the Rockland County Executive Race

It's been one year since Rockland County Executive C. Scott Vanderhoef announced he was retiring after 5 terms in office, leaving a debt-ridden and ethnically divided county facing the challenge of a new cross-Hudson bridge, a bankrupt public nursing home and an inadequate infrastructure.  David Fried is running on the Democratic, Independence and Working Families party lines.  He faces Ed Day on the Republican and Preserve Rockland lines.  Thomas Sullivan is on the Conservative Party line but has not actively campaigned.  Any votes Sullivan draws come at Republican Day's expense.

These are the five things to watch for as the results come in:

1. Rally in the Valley- Spring Valley is David Fried's home base and the center of his political gravity.  He served there as a judge and represented the community as a county legislator.  Spring Valley is Rockland's largest and most diverse village; an epic battle to succeed indicted Mayor Noramie Jasmin is underway and sucking up most of the political oxygen.  That could drive up turnout in this most Democratic of Democratic neighborhoods and Fried is counting on a massive vote there to lift his political wings.  Day has teamed up with Calherbe Monel, a Haitian-American television talk show host who is seeking the mayoralty on Day's Preserve Rockland line, in an effort to siphon Haitian-American Democrats from Fried.  Spring Valley is 8 to 1 Democrat and Day should get clobbered there.  If he doesn't, listen for the cheering at the Comfort Inn in Nanuet, where relieved Republicans will be celebrating.

2. Standing Room Only in the County Seat: If Fried is counting on Spring Valley, Day is looking to his political base in New City, a Democratic leaning area where he has successfully won his county legislative seat in multiple elections.  Day needs to win the Town of Clarkstown, where New City is located, by big numbers.  Fried supporters have pushed back hard there, reminding Clarkstown Democrats that Day is right of center on abortion.  To win the race, Day needs a multi-thousand vote margin in Clarkstown.  If Fried keeps it tight there, the whooping will be loud at the Casa Mia Manor House in Blauvelt where county Democrats are taking in the election returns.

3. Hasidim But I Don't Believe 'Em: When all else fails in Rockland, you can liven up any campaign by linking an opponent to the controversial Hasidic "bloc vote" in Ramapo township.  The "bloc," which is an amalgam of rival religious factions that attempt to find common political purpose by voting for the same candidate, has lined up behind Fried despite his vocal opposition to expanded Hasidic housing.  Why?  Day's rhetoric opposing Hasidic growth has been even more heated and his campaign aligned itself with Preserve Ramapo, which has spent over a decade fighting the Hasidim.  Day attacked the Hasidim from the beginning of the race, as he expected to face Ilan Schoenberger, a Hasidic-backed legislator who Fried bested in September's Democratic Primary.  When Schoenberger lost, the community's leaders got behind Fried as the lesser of two evils.  Whether they can generate enough turnout to support a candidate who has been openly critical of the community remains to be seen.  But the leadership there is certainly trying and a Fried victory requires a high turnout in Monsey.

4. Down by the Riverside: Fried's primary victory was propelled by liberal activists in the Hudson Riverfront communities of Nyack, South Nyack and Piermont and the strong support of former Orangetown supervisor Thom Kleiner, a popular figure there who will land a high profile county job if Fried is victorious.  Fried's opposition to the proposed United Water desalination plant and endorsement from Planned Parenthood and the Sierra Club play very well here.  A big vote for Fried in the Nyacks will offset heavy losses in conservative Pearl River and Blauvelt, where many law enforcement families are cheering Day, a retired cop.  Fried took 85% of the vote here in the Primary and needs to post strong numbers here to emerge victorious countywide.  Riverfront communities in Haverstraw, which have heavy Democratic enrollment, also need to deliver for Fried.  If he hold the Democratic base in a county with a 2 to 1 Democratic enrollment edge, he wins. If Day's campaign to appeal to Democrats by stressing that the "R" after his name stands for Rockland not Republican erodes that base vote, the party of Jackson is in trouble.

5. Absentee Ballots: An unprecedented number of absentee ballots have been cast in this year's local elections, including many gathered by the Independence Party in Clarkstown.  While absentees generally track the Election Day results, it's clear that political leaders have been trying to get as many votes in the pre-election bank as possible with the absentee ballot drive.  That could boost Fried, who gained Independence Party backing when the party's preferred candidate, Schoenberger, lost the Democratic Primary in September.  Absentee ballots will also play a critical role in Spring Valley's mayoral race; it is unlikely a definitive winner in that battle will emerge tonight.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Election 2013: Kulturkampf on the Hudson

The Republicans running for County Executive in adjoining Westchester and Rockland Counties want to make it clear to suburban voters thinking of sitting out this year's uninspiring local elections: they believe stakes are higher than usual.

 "Whole neighborhoods have been laid bare and transformed into mere shells of their former beauty," says Rockland County legislator Ed Day, vowing to stop a spate of zoning changes permitting more multifamily construction in Monsey if he wins the county's top elected post.

Across the Hudson in Westchester, County Executive Rob Astorino also stands stalwart against housing changes. "The federal government has sought to dismantle local zoning," he says with the intensity of someone who would stand in the schoolhouse door to stop it.  His warnings are ominous; in a Wall Street Journal op-ed he asked "Do you think it is a good idea to give the Department of Housing and Urban Development unchecked power to put an apartment building in your neighborhood?"

It's (relatively) fiery rhetoric from men in suits who seek to spend their days negotiating contracts with public employee unions, deciding whether to spray aerial insecticide to combat mosquito-borne West Nile Virus and denouncing the MTA.

But to students of New York's tangled web of municipal jurisdictions, these campaign declarations are simply incoherent. State law denies its county governments a determinative voice in zoning matters. Town and village governments regulate the use of land as they please.

But if these conservative Republicans are going to buck a
tidal wave of growing Democratic Party enrollment in New York City's northern suburbs, they will need to pry large chunks of Democrats from voting the party line.

So they declared a culture war.

Suburban Code

For those in the know, Day and Astorino appear to speak in code. Everyone knows Day is talking about stopping the construction of more apartments for the rapidly increasing number of Rockland Hasidim. Astorino is defending affluent communities' rights to prevent affordable apartment housing in their borders--the kind of housing required by a 2009 federal court settlement in which Westchester admitted its local zoning laws were discriminatory. The affordable apartments would be welcomed by the county's less affluent Latinos, whose local population has increased by nearly 50% since 2000 according to the United States Census Bureau.  According to Bureau, the Latino population varies widely within Westchester - Scarsdale is 3.9% Hispanic; Port Chester is 60%.  More than one of every five Westchester residents identifies as Latino or Hispanic.

While moving uniformly to the left in state and federal elections, suburbanites have been less quick to throw in the towel on their local GOP. Astorino knocked off Democratic icon Andy Spano four years ago. Republican C. Scott Vanderhoef won his office in Rockland in 1993 and has served since, easily clearing his Democratic adversaries.

The Republican future in Westchester and Rockland looks less bright.  According to the New York State Board of Elections, only 23% of Rocklanders currently register Republicans. Among county voters who choose to register in a political party, 60% go with the Democrats. Groups that vote heavily Democratic, such as blacks and Latinos, are the fastest growing slice of the Westchester electorate, which now boasts over a quarter-million Democrats.  Data from the Westchester County Board of Elections shows Republicans there in a losing battle with those who opt for no party at all. Rockland's large Hasidic families tend to support local Democrats who favor social service spending.

In both counties, the heated Republican rhetoric on zoning in this year's campaigns has allowed the Republican aspirants to expand their political base. Polling shows Astorino stubbornly hanging on to a chunk of the affluent, apartment-averse Democratic voters that his opponent, Noam Bramson, needs to win. Day forged an alliance with Preserve Ramapo, a group opposed to Hasidic development that is led by Democrats who nearly dethroned the party's elected local chair.

Astorino continues to blast the federal discrimination charges and remains a close favorite to win despite a disciplined campaign by Bramson. Democrat David Fried should also be in a cakewalk in Rockland where Democrats have a 2 to 1 voter enrollment edge -- but some of his party members have defected because they think Day takes a stronger stand against the Hasidim. The race is tighter than it should be.

Party leaders have noticed.  Governor Andrew Cuomo, the titular head of New York's Democrats, has joined leading party figures like Bill Clinton and Chuck Schumer in working  the 'burbs, urging Westchester and Rockland Democrats to unite behind the party's nominees.

Local and Vocal

There is a vein of anger that runs beneath these manicured lawns and Hudson River views. Resentment about outrageous property taxes funding high cost programs for new immigrants in the public schools. Disbelief at soaring public Medicaid costs scarcely offset by any cost-sharing with recipients. Shock at why the fastest growing ethnic groups in the county don't crave single-family homes, spaced as far from each other as money allows.

The half-acre lots of the suburbs are the immigrant generation's revenge on the
teeming tenements of their youth.

While many neighborhoods slowly transform over time, the increase in the size of the Hasidic community in Rockland's Ramapo is staggering. Hundreds of new large, multi-family housing units came to market in
recent years, accompanied by dozens of shuls and yeshivas. A recent survey of American Jews by the Pew Research Center unsurprisingly found declining synagogue attendance among members of the tribe; in Monsey, however, ever increasing ranks of rabbis never seem to lack for new adherents. A household of 10 may even bring down the average family size on some streets.

Day has vocally amplified (some say exploited) the voice of residents of neighboring towns who worry about spillover traffic and drainage from all the building. Hasidic control of a local school board inflames relations between the Hasidim and black leaders, with public school programs facing unsustainable cuts. Some African-American leaders are openly breaking with the Democrats and supporting Day because of his perceived opposition to the Hasidim and their
stewardship of the primarily-minority East Ramapo School District.

Among the 15,000 odd votes to select the Democratic standbearer in a September primary, Day only secured a few hundred ballots as a write-in candidate.  But he makes no bones about his General Election attempts appeal to Democrats opposed to the Hasidim, regularly holding press conferences with the handful of rebellious Democratic officials who have endorsed him.

Feds on the Hunt

Change does not come easily to suburbia. Yonkers grabbed the front pages twenty-five years ago for
refusing to integrate its schools-- a decade and a half after some Southern communities had made more progress. It took the federal courts to throw out an election district system in Port Chester that denied Latinos representation in the community's government. Airmont, in Rockland, was forced to change its zoning ordinance by Justice Department decree in the 1990s. Its laws unlawfully discriminated against Orthodox Jews.

More recently, the Department of Housing and Urban Development charged Westchester with systematic exclusionary zoning-- a conspiracy by more affluent, heavily white municipalities to keep blacks and Latinos out of their neighborhoods by enacting
zoning laws that prevented the construction of higher density affordable housing. Astorino's predecessor settled the case in 2009 and committed to constructing 750 units of affordable housing. That's not enough for the federal monitor administering the settlement; he wants each municipality in Westchester to ensure its local zoning ordinance permits multi-family housing.

Astorino has battled that demand at every turn, claiming that the county cannot compel local governments to changing their zoning (absolutely true) and that the federal government has no basis to claim that the exclusion of high density development from the most attractive parts of expensive Westchester towns amounts to discrimination (debatable). A half dozen Westchester communities are targeted by the feds for additional zoning changes.

The communities Astorino is spending so much political capital defending from this federal onslaught are not his partisan base. In Lewisboro (4.4% Latino, according to the census) Democrats outnumber Republicans. Pelham Manor (7.2% Latino) just elected its first Democratic Mayor. Democrats dominate in
Scarsdale (3.9% Latino). Republicans do have the edge in Harrison (11.7% Latino).

But some of those affluent Democrats embrace Astorino for defending their local zoning. In truth, it's also gratitude for delaying integration. Veterans of town and village meetings in racially homogeneous communities have heard it many times: one affordable housing development can become many. An ethnic food store can become a loud hangout.

The Democratic candidates are aware that their adversaries have struck a nerve -- albeit on issues that the county executive is fundamentally powerless to do anything about. Bramson, the mayor of ethnically diverse New Rochelle, blasts Astorino's messy public spats with HUD but insists he won't roll over for the federal government.  Some Westchester Democrats aren't so sure.

Day's opponent, David Fried, has been a consistent 
critic of overdevelopment, albeit without divisive rhetoric. He definitively rejects a desalination plant proposed by the local water utility on the Hudson Shoreline and is backed by the Sierra Club; Day appears to have left himself room to ultimately back the controversial plant. Nonetheless, some progressive environmental activists cast their lot with Day, forsaking their views on abortion rights and marriage equality in exchange for political promises on limiting Hasidic development.

Day can bring little more than a bully pulpit to Ramapo's zoning issues and Astorino has no say over whether Westchester towns and villages choose to permit more affordable housing. But both Republicans channel defiance in the face of change, endearing themselves to Democrats anxious about their communities' ethnic futures.

These suburban Republicans will not stop the changes they bemoan.  But they may win their elections anyway.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Westchester & Rockland Left Out in Casino Cold

New York voters will decide whether to bet on expanded casino gambling as a jackpot for state government coffers and economically adrift upstate communities.

I support the proposed November election referendum that would authorize the gambling, but Westchester and Rockland residents will bear many of the costs of any downstate stampede to casinos in the Catskills. Our communities need compensation for the drain on our infrastructure and strain on our police and emergency services. The Department of Budget confirmed last week that there will no “impact aid” for Putnam, Westchester or Rockland counties.

In 2005, a task force I appointed (as Rockland’s state assemblyman) reported that casinos then proposed for the Catskills would dramatically increase traffic passing on Rockland’s portion of the Thruway — with real consequences for air quality, traffic safety and law enforcement activity. At the same time, the panel found developing casinos in the Catskills and surrounding areas would provide a huge and needed economic boost to our construction trades and create jobs in an expanded casino-driven market for regional goods and services.
That analysis is still sound.

The Tappan Zee Bridge project at that time was stuck in place; because of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s focus, our concern in 2005 that additional traffic would utterly compromise the bridge’s safety is abated. Indeed, the successful and timely completion of the replacement bridge — a goal to which Cuomo will stick — is essential for safe movement of the hundreds of thousands of additional cars, trucks and buses coming our way.

Westchester leaders have wondered aloud about the impact of upper Hudson Valley gambling on Empire City in Yonkers. That “racino” is limited to video slot machines and related electronic games at racetracks; the casino legislation bars table game casinos in New York City and Westchester and Rockland counties.

New York City gamblers looking for an upstate thrill would pass through our region by the bus load. We have more to offer than sound barriers — and promoting our local tourism in the lower Hudson Valley must be a state priority if we are to gain additional visitors rather than lose them entirely to the blackjack tables.Casino trip marketers must include promotions and incentives for Westchester and Rockland tourism and shopping by casino patrons. Don’t look through the window, get off the bus! While reliance on retail jobs is not a comprehensive economic development strategy, malls are large property taxpayers. Attracting shoppers traveling to casinos can provide support to our commercial tax base and stop the shift in the tax burden from businesses to homeowners.

The 2005 panel reported to me and Rockland Legislature Chairwoman Harriet Cornell that $7 million in annual state aid be appropriated to the county to offset the additional costs Rockland would bear as a key traffic artery to the upstate casinos.

It is unarguable that gambling can bring increased criminal activity. Gambling traffic will bring opportunities for police investigations and traffic accidents requiring ambulance assistance. A key factor in the approval of the Palisades Center in West Nyack was additional investment in police and emergency services. The state must provide additional aid to our police departments and volunteer fire and ambulance corps for the additional burdens they will bear.

We should invest in even more construction jobs by improving our public infrastructure along Route 59 and this new, casino-driven tourist highway. State-funded flood control and traffic pattern improvements are essential.

And we need all those buses to be low emissions or our air quality will suffer significantly. Public transit agencies have made an investment in clean buses. All buses authorized to run trips to the casinos must use state-of-the-art emissions control and undergo frequent maintenance.

If the casinos can bring the economic benefits their proponents claim, those dollars must be shared with Lower Hudson Valley communities. Casinos can likely breathe new life into the economies of communities across New York, but that can’t happen at the expense of the quality of life of Westchester and Rockland families. Our region’s voters deserve a discussion of our needs before casting casino referendum ballots in November.

This article first appeared on lohud.com on October 5, 2013.  View it here.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

5 Things to Watch in Rockland's County Executive Primary

The polls close in less than an hour in the Democratic primary for Rockland County Executive.  Two Democrats are on the ballot- David Fried, a former county legislator and Spring Valley justice and Ilan Schoenberger, a current county legislator.  Both have been around politics their entire adult lives (Fried is younger, though) and have virtually identical stands on the issues-- to the extent they have taken any.  A pitched November battle with the Republican standard bearer, Ed Day, awaits and what passed in a low interest primary won't hold up under the General Election glare.

But, for now, here are 5 things to watch in tonight's results:

1. Results in the Town of Clarkstown- Clarkstown voters are fickle between the parties and this will be a key battleground in November.  Day represents a Democratic heavy district here, despite running and winning as a Republican.  A decisive win by either Schoenberger or Fried in Clarkstown would demonstrate an ability to effectively compete in Day's base in November.  If there is very low Clarkstown turnout today, Democrats have a rough ride in the next two months and will need to spend money fast to close that enthusiasm gap among the party's most loyal voters.

2. Hudson v. Hasidim- Fried expanded his traditional base among Spring Valley's black and Haitian-American voters to include the very liberal, activist riverfront communities (Nyack, Piermont, et. al.).  Fried's vote there is being driven, in part, as a reaction to the strong support Schoenberger has in the Orthodox community.  Facebook postings by riverfront activists have protrayed Fried, who always enjoyed support from the Hasidim, as someone who will stop the growth of the Hasidic community.  The Hasidim feel betrayed by Fried's embrace of many of their political adversaries and have not been shy about saying so.  It is a dangerous fault line between Democratic constituencies that will need each other in November.  Strong turnout among both constituencies with lopsided results would indicate a polarized party.  If Schoenberger prevails, he will need to persuade progressive activists that they will have a voice in his administration or risk losing them to the Day campaign.

3. Local primaries- The County Executive race has been shaped in part by other primaries in Rockland municipalities.  The Spring Valley circus-like mayoral campaign could lead to a victory by the incumbent, Noramie Jasmin, who is under federal indictment.  There was a lot of joint promotion of Fried and Jasmin in Spring Valley and that may alienate general election voters countywide.   The sharp personal and ethnic divisions between the mayoral candidates and within the Haitian-American community could come into sharp relief tonight; a unified vote from Democrat-rich Spring Valley is essential for the Democratic candidate this November. The tug-of-war for control of the Democratic Party in Haverstraw is also a factor.  The establishment Haverstraw Democrats did not include an endorsed candidate for County Executive on their literature, widely perceived as a slap at Schoenberger.  If Fried wins Haverstraw, look also for a stronger than expected showing by Rita Louie, who is opposing the incumbent Supervisor Howard Phillips and is endorsed by the Sierra Club.  Her key issue is fighting a proposed desalination plant on the Hudson.  A strong Louie vote will also be noticed by the Cuomo Administration, which is reviewing the project.  A Louie victory would doom the proposal.

4. Day's Write-Ins- Preserve Ramapo, an anti-development group that embraces anti-Hasidic rhetoric, launched a write in campaign for Ed Day in the Democratic Primary, declaring that it would not accept Fried as the "lesser of two evils" from the Ramapo Democratic Party. But Day's campaign has been quiet- smart, because they do not want to become invested in a difficult and unpredictable effort like a write-in.  Lots of write-ins, though, and Day can claim he will benefit from a wave Democratic discontent.  If the pickings are slim, he can deny that any real effort was expended.  But Preserve Ramapo has offered a tell of its strength- always a risky proposition in a business where perception is often reality.

5. Open Bar and Music- Neither candidate is having a party tonight aside from supporters, soda and chips at their respective headquarters.  That means one thing-- both campaign have blown through a lot of cash.  A dry primary night tap usually means a 7 a.m. start to general election fundraising calls the next morning.  The victor at 9pm will confront Ed Day's $250,000 warchest and months of repressed Republican energy.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Salvation in Spring Valley

“It is a story of corruption, mismanagement and abuse of power,” Daniel Friedman said as his voice aspired to a preacher’s cadence and elicited some amens from the mostly black crowd at a candidate’s forum in Spring Valley’s youth center.  Lamenting the sins of the incumbent (and indicted) mayor he is running against, he vowed to revitalize the downtown of this multi-ethnic community.  “Papa John’s is not economic development,” he roared.

Friedman, in the fourth year of a tenure on the Town of Ramapo Council he began at age 23, decided to try to exchange his current legislative role for an executive one a year ago.  Before the mayor he planned to challenge was arrested in an FBI-led corruption sting.  Before the building where he governs, Ramapo Town Hall, was raided by the feds.  Before the village’s already swirling cauldron of ethnic strife, real estate interests and financial stress bubbled over onto the front pages of New York City newspapers with tales of wiretaps, clandestine meetings and undercover agents.

His polished and well-honed attacks on village officials for taking large pay raises while taxes climbed reflects a smart, disciplined campaign and he has relentlessly pursued impressed voters with the zeal unique to younger candidates.  Friedman makes the only credible claim to outsider status on the village government’s problems. But his polish can also seem out of place amid the village’s traditional street theater politics. Friedman recently moved to Spring Valley from his home right outside the village borders.

Papa John’s could be as good at it gets for the village.  The store is one of the bright spots on Main Street- because of its loud lights, not because it attracts many customers.  While ethnic food stores in rundown buildings can still brim with regulars, a dozen newly built stores are vacant and have been since they were constructed.
As Democrats ponder their choices in Tuesday’s primary election, the signs of the mayoral aspirants clog the commercial artery.  Cynical and disinterested residents have heard political promises of downtown renewal before.  And the candidates know it.

Many say the mayoralty of this community has become a tarnished medal, even for those like Village Trustee Demeza Delhomme who have come close to this prize before.  Addressing the same crowd as Friedman, Delhomme, a Haitian-American, said he was unsurprised by either the scandals that have brought federal corruption indictments against fellow Haitian-Americans Mayor Noramie Jasmin and her Deputy Mayor or what he sees as deterioration in the municipality’s urban center.  “I told you what was going to happen and it did,” Delhomme said.
Nearly four years ago, after Jasmin defeated him, Delhomme had pledged to work closely with the new Mayor, who swelled the community's pride as its first Haitian-American mayor.  But he soured as he felt Jasmin’s mayoralty was growing increasingly imperial and controlling.  The always independent Delhomme wanted none of it.

Delhomme is a street fighter.  Shopkeepers, friends and enemies call him, Madonna-like, by his first name.  His twitter account is @TeamDemeza. Delhomme has an easy intimacy with voters, the gathered booty of a decade and a half of elections seeking both Haitian empowerment and his own seat at the table. 
In 2003, Delhomme, a revered figure for many Haitian youth, won a hot Democratic primary in a county legislative district drawn specifically to elect a Haitian and give that underrepresented community a voice in Rockland's county government.  But his bid faltered in the November election when his rival, David Fried (now a candidate for County Executive) successfully accused him of making anti-Semitic remarks on Delhomme’s cable show.  Delhomme’s remarks were disturbing and widely condemned at the time, but he has been a relatively consistent vote for the religious needs of the village’s Hasidim as a trustee. 

And while his remarks are history to many, Delhomme has the memory of an elephant.  He is enthusiastically supporting Fried’s opponent this year—who coincidentally has strong Hasidic support.
By all accounts, the prize in this election should be Demeza’s.  Friedman and Joseph Gross, the two candidates in the race from the large and growing Orthodox Jewish population, were stunned by a pre-Rosh Hashanah rabbinical pronouncement barring community members from electing an Orthodox mayor.  The edict rendered by Rabbi Israel Hager, leader of the large and powerful Vitznitz sect, could turn out the primary night lights for both Friedman and Gross, an incumbent village trustee and Hasid.

It was a unique Spring Valley moment as Gross made his case to the room filled with NAACP activists, political leaders and random campaign volunteers.  This was not a friendly crowd, riveted as the town is with tensions between the Hasidim and racial minorities.  But Gross was determined to cross the divide, proudly appearing in his distinctive black frock.
Asked about building code violations in the village, he promised not tougher enforcement but more affordable housing—the key concern of his constituency, young Hasidic families struggling with village property tax bills that are among the highest in the state.  The crowd, unimpressed, also provided no applause when he said he wanted “the best public schools.”  The tension was palpable—and unfair.

Gross has struggled for his voice with minority audiences but has pursued support from all quarters of the village with cheer, enthusiasm and determination.  At a rainy Haitian Flag Day parade, he bounded from one side of the street to the other, his distinctive strawberry blond side curls swinging, as he handed out t-shirts with his name and the Haitian flag.  When an activist complained that the colors on the flag were wrong (the dark navy should have been a brighter blue), Gross shrugged.  “I’m here to celebrate with the entire community,” he said.
Gross’s candidacy was on life support for a while after Friedman knocked him off the election ballot with a legal challenge to the trustee’s nominating petition.  He clawed his way back on with a court case of his own and is campaigning in the village’s many study halls and synagogues with unabashed verve, handing out High Holiday prayer books with his name on it.

Fighting with Friedman, also an Orthodox Jew, for that community’s support may leave both candidates as runners up.  Orthodox voters, even if voting in lockstep, do not (yet) have sufficient voting power in a primary to elect one of their own without other coalition partners.  And, as Rabbi Hager’s pronouncement revealed, may not want to even if they could.

Yet the village’s politically dominant Haitian-Americans—currently holding 4 of 5 seats on the village’s governing board- also find their power receding as an influx of Latinos joins the Orthodox as the fastest growing populations in town.

Jasmin’s ascendant political star plummeted with her arrest in April on federal corruption charges, but she has rallied her base of Haitian-American women as the election draws near.  Fashionable, smart and quick on her feet, Jasmin has used all the tools of her mayoralty to unify the Haitian vote behind her and change the headline on her political obituary before the ink dries.
It is often difficult to tell whether Jasmin is running for re-election as mayor or matriarch.  She refers to village taxpayers as “my people,” dispenses advice to both longtime associates and newcomers on health habits and dress and exudes the public warmth that marks the most successful retail politicians.  She quickly climbed the political ladders in the often patriarchal Haitian community, with major assists from her mentor, former village mayor George Darden.  Her mayoral victory was secured by the overwhelming support of ultra-Orthodox leaders—few of whom will publicly back her today. 

If the indictment lowered Jasmin’s volume it did not change her tenor.  Where opponents see empty stores, she sees the seeds of the community’s renewal.  Championing Darden’s urban renewal program, she has cut the ribbons on multiple housing projects and welcomed a glistening new Walgreen’s.  But black, Haitian and Latino groups claim the housing is skewed toward the Hasidim.  And numerous zone changes have certainly fostered that community’s growth.
Jasmin swats back talk of dissolving the high tax municipality with ringing defenses of the services it provides.  And she understands the levers of power.  She tacked a $300,000 road improvement bond on to a village board agenda, cornering her electoral rivals and fellow board members Gross and Delhomme.  The Mayor pushed for an immediate vote; her colleagues understandably balked.  The next day, Jasmin took to the radio, blasting her opponents for jeopardizing the village’s infrastructure.

Figuring Spring Valley’s electoral math can require an advanced degree.  With two Orthodox candidates and three Haitian candidates (Vilair Fonvil, a frequent office seeker who would have easily won a seat on the Board of Trustees is also making another long shot bid for Mayor), victory depends on voting patterns in individual churches and religious sects.  But the corruption scandals seems to have depressed, rather than motivated, the electorate.  Outside the echo chamber of political activists, even reliable Democratic voters express a resigned skepticism about the ability of any of the candidates to lead effectively.

Lost in most of the electoral shuffle are the concerns of the village’s African-American voters  Longtime owners of smaller homes on the village’s “hill” section and residents of the Gesner Gardens public housing complex—the base of Spring Valley’s once vaunted Democratic Party machine—find their concerns shunted aside in the ethnic fracas.  Jasmin has retained support from some of those old line Democrats who are part of her administration.  Sherry Scott, Jasmin’s appointed Village Clerk, and Patricia Caldwell, the former Democratic Party leader who chairs the community’s Zoning Board, are among the more prominent African-American leaders in Jasmin’s corner.

Late last month, the Board of Trustees voted to accept funds left in the bank account of the Tiger’s Den, a defunct recreation program for village teens (the Tiger is the mascot of Spring Valley High School).  Few in the audience that night were even familiar with the program, once prominently housed on Main Street near the long-closed Village Tea Room restaurant.

White and black teens gathered at the Tiger’s Den, often with local teachers and recreation program leaders.  When it opened, it marked a transition of its own for village’s Main Street, where teens formerly gathered at the soda fountain.  It also tracked the emergence of a reform, multiracial movement within Spring Valley’s Democratic Party.  Village leaders were toppled in primary challenges lead by a secular Jewish housewife named Rhoda Friedman, who turned a random stint as an election day poll watcher into a 30 year career as Spring Valley’s chief powerbroker and one of Rockland County’s most influential political leaders.

Indeed, it was Friedman, wise to the increase in Spring Valley’s Haitian population, who first recruited Jasmin.  Friedman was looking to stop the rise of Demeza, who was gaining a street following for challenging the exclusion of Haitians from positions of local political power.  It worked.
Now, Jasmin is in the fight of her political life, the local Democratic party is non-functional and residents who once filled village board rooms with complaints and criticism now burst out of overflowing churches and synagogues.  More people attend Sunday services on one stretch of Main Street than will vote in Tuesday’s primary and today’s village residents are more comfortable in the pews than at the polls.
No one in Spring Valley is seeking salvation through politics anymore, except maybe the candidates themselves.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Primary Colors Shade Albany Abortion Debate

Guns, God and Gays.  It’s shorthand for the reluctance of white middle class Americans to vote Democratic despite general agreement with the party's economic policies. 

It's also captures three cultural hurdles Governor Cuomo is looking to clear in order to run for re-election next year as a history-making, effective progressive.  National Democrats take note.  

Cuomo's political investment in marriage equality exceeds that of any straight politician in the nation.  He wielded the levers of gubernatorial schmooze, legislative craftsmanship and political assistance to secure marriage rights for more gay couples than anyone else.  The Governor’s personal involvement in passing the measure through the then GOP-controlled State Senate is widely chronicled

Gays-- who comprise 5% of the national electorate and vote more than 75% Democratic- are a key party constituency. More than 11% of the Democratic Primary voters in presidential delegate-rich California are LGBT. 

Cuomo has also tightly linked himself to gun control supporters, securing a national spotlight in the wake of the Newtown massacre.  With speed (some say too much speed), Cuomo convinced Republican senators representing politically moderate districts on Long Island to back his SAFE Act.  

Cuomo's potential 2016 presidential rivals, Governors Martin O'Malley of Maryland and John Hickenlooper of Colorado, have also pressed gun control bills.  But no initiative received as much attention as Cuomo's success in New York.  Support for gun control—already high among Democrats at 78%- is highest among Democratic women.  And women are the dominant force in Democratic presidential primaries. 

In the waning days of the 2013 legislative session, Cuomo's chief social legislation objective is his dulcetly named Women's Equality Act.  The bill is an amalgam of thoughtful, not terribly controversial, proposals that would strengthen protections for victims of domestic violence, end odious discrimination against women with children in the rental of housing and expand harassment protections to all New York workplaces. 

It would also codify abortion rights in New York consistent with the parameters of Roe v. Wade.  The act is stalled.   

It is difficult to discuss Andrew Cuomo and abortion without recalling Mario Cuomo's unbridled defense of abortion rights at Notre Dame in 1984. The Religious Right (remember Jerry Falwell?) was the wind beneath President Reagan’s re-election wings that year and Democratic vice-presidential nominee Geraldine Ferraro of New York was in a messy public spat with John Cardinal O'Connor over her vocal pro-choice stance.  Walter Mondale, the Democratic presidential nominee, accused Regan of suggesting that “God is a Republican.” 

In America's cradle of Catholic pride, Mario Cuomo powerfully summoned the Church's social justice teaching to provide context for his support for legalized abortion, despite his personal, faith-based opposition.  Andrew Cuomo appears less inclined to reach to dogma.  He states his support for abortion rights straightforwardly: either you are pro-choice or you are not. 

Cuomo is pressing Senator Jeff Klein and the Senate’s Independent Democratic Conference hard on the WEA’s abortion rights provisions.  Klein and his colleagues, kingmakers after they bolted from the dysfunctional State Senate Democratic caucus, are liberal but pragmatic.  The Bronx Democrat shares leadership of the State Senate with Dean Skelos, a Nassau County Republican first elected to the Assembly the same year Al D'Amato rode a wave of suburban votes to the US Senate.  They rule together, sharing the blessings of cooperation and the strains of uneasy political partnership. Skelos is blocking the WEA from coming to the Senate floor. 

After one IDC member, Diane Savino of Staten Island, called for passage of the WEA without the abortion provisions, she was slammed by women's groups.  Twitter lit up with calls for the IDC's lone female member to press for an up or down floor vote on Cuomo's bill.   

On the other side, New York's Catholic leaders have unleashed their harshest rhetoric yet of Cuomo's tenure after relatively mild opposition to Cuomo's marriage equality efforts. 

"We must not let victims of abuse and discrimination be held hostage to Governor Cuomo’s ideologically driven political agenda," the Catholic Conference said in one of many press statements, "an agenda that is extremely harmful to mothers, infants and religious liberty." 

Polls show strong support for Cuomo's bill.  Opponents contend the public is backing the less controversial elements of the bill, not its abortion provisions.  But the data is pretty clear—this morning’s Siena Poll shows support ranging between 56% to 67% for the bill’s abortion provisions, depending on how the question is framed.  A clear majority says the abortion provisions should not be removed from the bill as part of a legislative compromise. 

The larger argument of WEA opponents is why bother.  Abortion rights seem in no peril in New York.  Few see a retrenchment on Roe v. Wade while a Democratic president retains the power to appoint the next Supreme Court justice.  New York's last Republican Governor, George Pataki, supported abortion rights.   

For Albany politicos, Cuomo's success in this legislative session is linked to his package of bills responding to lawmaker corruption scandals than by his abortion rights agenda.  And pummeling IDC members on choice could potentially find the weak spot that makes the current power sharing between Skelos and Klein unsustainable.  IDC members want neither a culture war with pro-choice women in their districts nor the wrath of the liberal editorial boards that gave them a pass on their Republican teamwork in exchange for progressive victories on gay marriage, gun control and a higher minimum wage.  (Over the weekend, the IDC introduced its own Women’s Equality Act.) 

But passing the WEA would make Cuomo the nation's progressive icon-- a bold Westchester Wonder erasing national Democrats' memories of the hesitant Hamlet on the Hudson who passed on the presidency in 1992.  Even if the bill passes without its abortion plank, Cuomo’s high profile advocacy can lock down the support of ideological Democrats so effectively that his imprimatur-- not those of traditional liberal activist groups- will define the progressive virtue of others in New York, California and beyond. 

Cuomo's biggest bet isn't on casinos in the Catskills-- but on Democrats' desire for the unrepentant social liberalism avoided by Barack Obama and criticized by Bill Clinton.   

If you are going to carry the baggage of being a liberal from New York across the country, you might as well actually be one.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Where Have You Gone, Barack Obama?

Move over, Jeremiah Wright.

Barack Obama is no longer an angry black man, a closet Muslim or, gasp, a Socialist.

He is the devil himself.  He is Richard Nixon.

The headlines out of Washington are blaring.  The IRS targeting possible right-wing fringe groups.  TalkingpointsGate.  With far greater credence, the shady reporter tapping sanctioned by the Justice Department.

Do I see Obama waving the victory sign on the lawn in front of the presidential helicopter?  Laughable. 

But the power of his personal narrative as a force for real progressive policy change took flight some time ago. 

Democrats were determined to fall in love and Barack Obama was oh so available.  Progressives, still frustrated by the unrealized expectations of the Clinton years and very steamed from two terms of the culturally alien George W. Bush, took to Obama hard in 2008. 

He was the most perfect projection of liberal fantasy-- a more inspirational icon than Hillary Rodham Clinton, who toiled in vineyards of lefty non-profits, child advocacy groups and McGovern-originated thought circles for decades.  Obama's appeal as the first black president, coupled with his opposition to intervention in Iraq, brought the anti-war and civil rights movements' multi-decade march on the Democratic Party full circle. 

Obama has kept his most fundamental promise to his supporters: no new messy foreign entanglements.  Bin Laden, Guantanamo, Libya- accepted compromises in a dangerous world.  But Obama has never let his olive branch credentials wilt, no matter how hot the Syrian summer

But after eight years of trying to convince their most conservative friends that President Bush was nothing more than Dick Cheney's thought bubble, liberals didn't only want a change in foreign policy.  They wanted to feel at home in a nation where conspicuous religious evangelizing and resurgent secular nationalism caused them dis-ease.  

But on social issues, the President has seemed late and half-hearted.  Andrew Cuomo jumped the historical wave on marriage equality; the President appeared small by comparison.  Battles over abortion are flaring anew.  The Supreme Court is reviewing affirmativeaction.  State university systems, the great multi-racial, middle class promise, are fraying

Obama’s boldest policy move, the first meaningful stab at health policy in a decade, yielded vociferous opposition from conservatives without any real change in voter thinking about how to fund care-- a missed opportunity that Democrats know jeopardizes larger and moredesperately needed reforms to the long term care system.

Obama's political candle is burning at both ends, singed by cable news-driven scandalettes on its right and the slow burn of deflated energy on its left.

Can the President rekindle the flame? 

First, Obama needs to lean back into his own story.  American's hitched a ride on the hope express before they were even sure where it was going.  The only way for Obama to rebuild political capital and score any policy victories on immigration, gun violence or tax reform is to reconnect what voters know about his life to his aspirations for public policy.  This child of difference must help us make sense of our multi-ethnic, international future.

Americans still like Obama; I am unconvinced that he has exhausted the full strength of his uniquely American journey as a persuasive political force. 

Second, celebrate success.  2013 is an off year election in national politics.  But there are hundreds of other elections around country.  LA just elected a new Mayor.  New Yorkers are picking a successor to Mike Bloomberg.  Obama, with innovative public thinkers, needs to fully join the conversation about how communities, and metro regions, chart their destiny.  With a re-election campaign in a blue state, I’m sure Chris Christie is still available

Local governments are most citizens' daily demonstration of governmental effectiveness.  And most of the good things done by local governments, from parks to drainage systems to disaster recovery, involve federal funds.  Obama's progressive policy prospects for the balance of his term, and any long term improvement in the Democrats' political brand, requires increased public confidence in the effectiveness of public spending. 

Local control was ceded to the flow of dollars federal lawmakers used to lubricate the wheels of social and racial change in 1960s and 70s.  Obama carries the baggage of the federal government without credit for the fruits of its largesse.  With so many eyes on local politics, he should wrap himself in effective Mayors, County Executives and other high profile local leaders across the nation.   

Third, Obama should endorse Hillary Clinton as his successor.  Otherwise, Obama may drown his own presidency in perpetual response to the political gyrations of Clintonland.   It's a distraction the President can't afford.  There is only upside to being a cheerleader for another presidential first. If she runs in 2016, she will be the party nominee.  If she doesn't, all bets are off anyway.  Biden will forgive him.  

Second terms are a bitch-- from Iran-Contra to Monica to Katrina.  Obama's "Tricky Dick" headlines today will likely join more heated panting about overreaching administration appointees as the mid-term elections approach.  The President's supporters can take some cynical solace that he is now compared to the patron of America's silent majority rather than Chicago's social agitators.  It's tempting to smile at the irony, hang tight to the history you've already made and spend 30 months keeping Congress at bay. 

But presidential fatigue from an obnoxious, six-year long, racially-tinged culture war will be far more damaging to Obama’s legacy than any more stupidity at the IRS.  The President who promised change we could believe in must keep his own faith until the end. 

Obama travelled far on Dreams from his Father; now, he must now share, clearly and passionately, his dream for his daughters.

And for mine. 

Mr. President, a nation turns its lonely eyes to you.




Sunday, May 5, 2013

Maestro Cuomo

Looks like libraries are going to need lots of shelf space for Andrew Cuomo.  In just the third year of his first term as New York's Governor, Cuomo's tenure has already spawned book plans from a Vanity Fair editor, Post columnist Fred Dicker and, as of last week, the Governor himself

It's no wonder.  While the Governor is rarely depicted as a political choir boy, the chorus he conducts in Albany is positively harmonious.

Albany earned a reputation for off-key governance long ago.  The current corruption scandals, which shook even the most calloused observers of Capitol life, could lead many veteran lawmakers to call it quits rather than seek re-election next year.  But for those who stick it out, there is a political lifeline:  Governor Cuomo.

If the Governor wasn't running for re-election last year, it was hard to tell.  Regular Democrats, Independent Democrats and Republicans all hung tight to the Governor, featuring him in their ads and tripping over each other to prove their willingness to support Cuomo's fiscally restrained, social progressive agenda.  With minor exceptions, that strategy was sound.

The Governor's approval ratings dipped this year, partially from his controversial but successful push for gun control legislation.  And, like clockwork, the press has swooped in with a breathless narrative of a politically damaged Governor.  Cue hyperventilated stories on Cuomo's hiring, flying and advertising.

In truth, he has little reason to worry.

For starters, Cuomo's poll numbers remain in very solid shape.  It is difficult for even the most skilled pols to sustain positive momentum through an entire term of office.  Cuomo's approval rating of 57% is impressive on its own-- and ten points higher than George Pataki's in the third year of his governorship.  But in the context of the charged issues the Governor has taken on in his stint on the Second Floor, it is nothing short of remarkable.

Cuomo has also steadily and skillfully redrawn the Capitol's ideological map.  He persuaded urban Assembly Democrats to adopt a suburban property tax cap they previously rejected.  He coaxed  Senate Republicans to provide the votes to pass a marriage equality bill that failed when the Democrats were in charge of the chamber. 

Efficient budget negotiations produced on-time fiscal plans that helpfully allow legislators to avoid unpleasant votes to extend expiring taxes in their 2014 election year.  Chronically late budgets embarrassed lawmakers for years.

In confronting these thorny issues Cuomo scored repeated policy wins without becoming the political target of powerful interests.  Business groups didn't like the tax extenders this year- but none ran TV ads against them.  Medicaid reform has been complex and painful to some health care providers, including campaign contributing nursing home operators, but the policy battles have been confined to task forces; there is little public clamor or sustained legislative pushback. 

None of this happens by accident.  Cuomo is a multi-dimensional political thinker who meticulously lays the bricks for his policy parades.  His allies organize around the Governor's priorities, implement a media strategy to build public support for his point of view and privately press legislators and interest groups to sign on.  Tweaks to the proposals provide cover for hesitant partners. 

The press may lament Cuomo's reluctance to open these chess matches with his own detailed bill language, but the results of the Governor's careful legislative strategy are indisputable-- there is less policy rancor in Albany today than anytime in recent memory.  No small feat with a power sharing agreement in the Senate, increasing pressure for state law changes from municipalities and continuing uncertainty over the state's economic future.

Cuomo's triumphs on three leading progressive issues-- a higher minimum wage, gun control and marriage equality-- riled grass roots Republicans and stalled the Governor's efforts to further codify abortion protections.  But the credit the Governor earns for navigating the ragged shores that impede passage of meaningful legislation far outweighs the potential loss of these conservative voters (who would likely abandon the Governor anyway as speculation about his presidential plans increases).

The legislative session is always a politically perilous time for governors.  Lawmakers can easily score press by grilling gubernatorial appointees in hearings or launching investigations.  When I served in the Assembly during the Pataki years, my Democratic colleagues and I received recommended mailers from our central communications staff so we could slam the Governor's proposals to our constituents and bring down his poll numbers before budget negotiations began.  The "sausage making" of legislation attracts legions of lobbyists, politicians and activists to Albany for a six month season of gossip and gamesmanship. 

Cuomo is seven weeks away from the close of his third session.  And though debates rage on hydraulic fracking, a potential casino referendum and the Governor's abortion proposals, a decision on fracking does not appear near, there is talk of postponing the casino referendum until 2014 and Cuomo has stated frankly that the votes are not yet there to pass his women's health agenda. 

A full, but not terribly spicy, political plate.

Most significantly, the Governor retains a powerful upper hand as the Legislature debates various anti-corruption proposals spurred by the wired woes of its members

The conventional wisdom-- generally supported by polling-- is that voters dislike legislative bodies but cheer their own representatives.  No longer.

One-third of the electorate believes it's likely their state senator will be arrested on corruption charges.  Half do not trust their assemblymembers.  In contrast, the Governor's administration has been scandal-free and around 60% of voters believe Cuomo will succeed in passing anti-corruption measures. 

Cuomo has backed public financing of state elections and reform of the Wilson-Pakula law, an electoral oddity that allows minor party chairmen to determine which candidates are permitted to compete in minor party primaries. He also introduced a bill requiring lawmakers to squeal on their crooked deskmates. 

The outlines of an "anti-corruption deal" do not take huge imagination: a pilot public financing program for state Comptroller elections (a pet project of Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and a re-election guarantee for his ally Tom DiNapoli), continued high dollar fundraising for party "housekeeping" accounts controlled by legislative leaders in exchange for lower contribution limits for individual campaigns and heightened penalties for bribery without a requirement to collar your colleagues. 

The Wilson-Pakula reform would ice the governor's cake with powerful editorial boards that detest the present law and weaken the state's Conservative and Working Families parties.  Both of those parties, though ideological opposites, have caused Cuomo political heartburn.  The Independent Democratic Conference, which holds the balance of power in the Senate, strongly backs the reform.

With Cuomo defending lawmakers against the 82% of the state's voters that want legislative term limits, his leverage is clear.  Unlike Eliot Spitzer, Cuomo has not joined the Times editorial page in regularly lambasting the legislature.  He has blasted the indicted bad apples while vowing to work with untainted lawmakers to reform the system.  Legislators hear the Governor's dulcet tone but know the notes can quickly change if they refuse to sing from his hymnal.  Embracing Cuomo's political reform agenda may be the only insulation from voter rebellion in 2014.

Cuomo regularly contrasts his accomplishments in New York with the inert state of policymaking in Washington.  He avoids trips to Capitol Hill like a hypochondriac steers clear of germs.  There is little interest in dancing at anyone else's club.

The result is functional state agencies, meaningful progressive legislation and accumulated political capital at the ready for 2014 and beyond.

Mario Cuomo famously told The New Republic in 1985 that "You campaign in poetry.  You govern in prose."  But anyone listening attentively to Albany's present score hears a consistent chorus of achievement in the current Cuomo's stewardship.

There is no magic in politics, but there is music. 

And Andrew Cuomo is a maestro.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Albany Rolls the Dice on Casino Referendum

The advent of the 2013 political season in New York is inescapable.  The Big Apple's mayoral aspirants square off in nearly daily debates.  Nassau's Republican incumbent County Executive, Ed Mangano, is making sure to attend every little league game in his folksy campaign to fend off his predecessor, Tom Suozzi.  Westchester Democrats are picking a challenger tonight for Rob Astorino, the incumbent Republican executive looking to challenge Governor Cuomo in 2014.

Upstate, Buffalo mayor Byron Brown kicked off his re-election effort last month and has $1.1 million banked to run his race.  Lovely Warren is mounting a Democratic Primary against party-backed Tom Richards for mayor of Rochester.  Stephanie Miner, the Syracuse mayor who tangled with Cuomo earlier this year over pension reform, is campaigning hard (while attracting some pushback from city employees upset with budget cuts).

But none of these races will attract the $150 million that will be spent persuading New Yorkers to support or oppose expanded casino gambling in a ballot referendum this November.  Polling shows opinions divided.

$150 million?

Casino referendum?

You'd be right to feel in the dark.  In order to permit Atlantic City-style gambling, the state Constitution needs to be amended to eliminate it's casino ban.  That only happens when the state Legislature votes, for two consecutive years, to place the amendment before the voters.  After the Legislature votes, a majority of those casting ballots at the polls is required for the amendment to be adopted.

But after painless passage in last year's legislative session, lawmakers and the governor are haggling over where the casinos might open.  There was no resolution of the matter before the state's budget.  And there is no viable bill right now. 

With the State Capitol on high alert from scandal, and Cuomo grappling with high profile issues from strengthening the state's abortion laws to fracking, public discussion on the casino question is muted.  Rank and file legislators fear a repeat of the 2010 bid rigging scandal over gambling at the Aqueduct that cost the State Senate's Democrats their majority, but don't want to be shutout of the dealing on the lucrative casino licenses.

Expect a lot of drama on the topic between now and the end-of-legislative session, middle of the night vote that likely awaits whatever agreement is reached.  The betting is that the referendum gets on the ballot.

New Yorkers are not used to major public policy referenda.  Unlike California, which is virtually governed by referendum, New York does not have a statewide citizen-initiated policy process. The last ballot measure that really got voters going was New York City's term limits referendum in 1993-- famously superseded by the 2008 City Council vote allowing Mayor Bloomberg's third term.  That reversal is causing huge headaches for Speaker Chris Quinn in her quest for his job.

New York's statewide ballot referenda tend to be on policy minutiae or increasing the state's debt.  Voters rejected holding a constitutional convention in 1977, but approved a Governor-Pataki backed $1.75 billion Environmental Bond Act in 1996. The electorate's mood soured in 1997; 3 of 4 statewide referenda went down to defeat, including $2.4 billion in funding for school construction.

 In 2003, a proposal to exempt small city school districts from constitutional debt limits failed, despite support from the influential teachers union.  State voters faced two referenda in 2005: the $2.9 Rebuild and Renew New York Transportation Bond Act and a budget reform amendment.  The bond act passed with 56% of the vote.  The budget reform measure was resoundingly rejected; 65% of voters gave it a thumbs down.

The most recent statewide referenda, in 2009, attracted little notice and less interest.  New Yorkers retroactively approved a power line along State Route 56 on six acres of forest preserve lands and allowed prisoners to perform volunteer work for nonprofits.  Both measures got about 67% of the vote.

But who is voting?

57% of voters statewide skipped voting on the 2009 forest lands amendment.  In New York City, which cast 35% of votes statewide in '09, 81% of voters failed to vote on the amendment.  Out of nearly 1.2 million voters who showed up to choose between Bill Thompson and Bloomberg, only 141,227 backed the measure.  It's now the law.

The victorious 2005 Transportation Bond was the reincarnation of a 2000 Transportaion Bond proposal that went down to defeat.  Only 47% of voters supported the measure that year; 51% didn't bother to vote on it all.  They pulled the level for Al Gore and went home.

Of 15 statewide ballot questions in New York since 1996, nine passed; six were defeated.

So the smart money might be on a successful casino referendum-- unless the voters actually pay attention.