Thursday, March 28, 2013

Weedwacked: The Politics of Pot

With the Times reporting on stoned seniors forsaking shuffleboard for bong hits, you might think New York's government is chillin' too.  Polls show that nearly two-thirds of New Yorkers think smoking weed in public should be a violation, not a misdemeanor.  51% of the state's voters back full legalization of marijuana.  Approval numbers for "medical marijuana" are even higher.

But unlike gun control and marriage equality-- where lawmakers acted decisively on issues that normally give risk-averse legislators heartburn-- the apparent consensus across party, geography and race for more liberal drug laws is stuck in Albany's legislative rut

The Republican Leader of the State Senate is worried that looser pot laws could turn New Yorkers into green goblins, with "10 joints in each ear."  The Assembly approved medical marijuana last year for the third time 90 to 50; a clear but not overwhelming majority. 

The Governor, Andrew M. Cuomo, who championed reform of the mandatory minimum sentences in the state's notorious and racist Rockefeller Drug Laws, has been noticeably cool to legal weed, even by doctor's prescription.  He has passionately championed drug sentencing reform.

So, no pending plans for a Joint Conference Committee on pot reform.

It's not for lack of trying.  The Marijuana Policy Project keeps it New York advocacy page up-to-date.  The Drug Policy Alliance, instrumental in the Rockefeller Drug Law Reform battle, spent $135,000 on lobbying by two prominent firms-- in 2012 alone.  Out-of-state companies are lobbying too.

And yet, while Colorado and Washington voters authorized taxed and regulated weed in separate referenda this past November-- and New Jersey's conservative sensation Chris Christie signed a medical marijuana bill in 2010-- New York remains no place for The Dude.

New York's "med mar" discussion has been sidelined by the debate over the New York City Police Department's controversial "stop and frisk" policy which arrests thousands of black men when they produce small bags of weed in response to police orders to empty their pockets.  Concealed marijuana, a non-criminal violation that would never have been charged because the cops did not know the weed was there, becomes pot in public view-- a misdemeanor.  Arrests and confinement follow-- before most criminal charges are tossed.

Blacks are 8 times more likely than whites to be arrested for weed, even though statistics irrefutably demonstrate more whites are toking than blacks.  "Stop and frisk" has been rightly tagged as a flawed, racist policy (90% of those stopped are black).  It's also the reason drug law reform is stalled.

The racial argument for drug law reform worked once.  George Pataki, seeking to a cast a more moderate image and open the GOP tent, ultimately embraced sentencing reform designed to end racial disparity in drug sentences under the Rockefeller Laws.  Andrew Cuomo teamed up with Russell Simmons to press the cause. 

Rockefeller reform was a chief legislative priority of the State Legislature's Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic and Asian Caucus.  The State's District Attorneys Association, which resisted reform, was a lonely opponent (causing grief for Nassau DA Kathleen Rice in her unsuccessful 2010 Attorney General campaign).  Rockefeller reform passed (twice), but its primary impact was on those who had already been incarcerated for a long time for old drug offenses.

The Rockefeller reform strategy worked because it was about the past--excessive sentences paired with a legacy of racism in past prosecutions.  Drug policy efforts now are about the present.

The controversy over "stop and frisk" implicates the current conduct of thousands of beat cops who work the city's streets but live in the politically influential suburbs.  To them (and louder voices like Mayor Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Kelly), New York's legislative debate over marijuana has ceased to be about compassionate care or the discredited war on weed-- it's become a referendum on cop conduct and safe streets. 

So while 72% of voters 18-34 believe public puffing should just be a violation, and Republican voters agree 50% to 47%-- that question is getting asked in a vacuum.  In Albany, it's become a cops vs. robbers contrast.  A dude with 10 joints growing in each ear?  Sounds like a menacing intruder--not a retired neighbor watching the movie stoned at home because it keeps the snacking cheaper.

That can be immensely frustrating to medical marijuana champions like Assembly Health Committee Chairman Dick Gottfried and Senator Diane Savino.  They know the effective arguments for liberal pot laws suggest regulated marijuana as tool to fight crime, not encourage it.  As this television ad for Colorado's winning Proposition 64 asked voters, do you want revenue from marijuana sales to build schools or go into the "pockets of criminals"?

In early March, New York budget negotiators floated a compromise proposal that would lower pot penalties in New York City-only.  The proposal was criminal justice politics, not thoughtful policy.  There is no distinguishable public health or safety justification for regulating the same half ounce of pot differently in Brooklyn than in Batavia. 

The "compromise" was a response to "stop and frisk" that glossed over the actual public consensus-- most New Yorkers just don't think adults getting buzzed on a little pot is a big deal.  And they definitely have ideas about how their communities could spent the estimated millions in new revenue regulated reefer would generate.

New York City's "stop and frisk" policy must end because it is discriminatory and intrusive whether the person stopped is stoned or stone cold sober.  And the state's marijuana policies should change as a reflection of a social consensus that includes the Golden Ganga Girls profiled by the Times.

But mixing the politics of law enforcement and race with the healthcare and social policy arguments of (medical) marijuana is a bad trip for drug policy reform in Albany. 



Thursday, March 21, 2013

Thanks for the Sloatsburg Shout Out!

This blog and the @rkarben Twitter feed get a write up by one of the state's premier local news websites, SloatsburgVillage.com  Read the article here.

From Discrimination to Diversity: An Airmont Saga

The real winner in this past Tuesday's election in Rockland County's Airmont?  Diversity and compromise--  all candidates in this municipality, once found to discriminate against Orthodox Jews, courted that community's vote.  The results offer the possibility of coalition politics that balances the zoning concerns of longtime residents with the cultural needs of the religious newcomers.

Incumbent Mayor Veronica Boesch survived an energetic challenge from Planning Board member Tom Gulla.  The turnout was 1,528.  Interest in the campaign was high and shaped by local news site Airmont Scoop.  Candidates, including the Mayor, posted on the site's Facebook page and the site reportedly scored hundreds of hits on election day.

Boesch polled 791votes; Gulla 696.  While Gulla polled more strongly among Orthodox Jewish voters, Boesch courted the community as well and her 95 vote margin of victory came from that support.

In the 1990s, Airmont first butted heads with the Department of Justice over land use restrictions that made it a virtual impossibility to open a synagogue in the village.  Years of public and private litigation were ultimately resolved by two settlements. One required a rewritten zoning code and $1,000,000 in payments by village taxpayers for the Orthodox Jewish plaintiffs legal fees; reports said village taxpayers spent nearly $500,000 in legal fees.  A 2011 settlement required a $10,000 civil penalty and further amendments to the zoning code.  Controversy over the settlement dominated Airmont politics for years.

But Orthodox Jews continued to move to Airmont-- and, in some cases, found a markedly different approach.  The chassidic singing sensation Lipa Schmeltzer received approval for a synagogue in 2010 with minimal controversy (I represented the application before the Planning Board).  Some village residents report a far more cooperative relationship with local officials.

While some local observers thought Boesch would be felled by controversy over property tax levels in this village of 9,000, she was backed energetically and unreservedly by Preserve Ramapo, the anti-development group, and County Legislator Joe Meyers.  Meyers proved once again that he remains a popular figure in his district; his get out the vote operation is far more effective than many local politicians.  A robocall endorsement for Boesch from State Senator David Carlucci was also critical to the incumbent's victory.

The strong vote for Gulla-- and for independent, first-time village Trustee candidates Randi Mallia and Veronique Allen-Hazell came mostly from Orthodox voters, who are now a clearly established 700 plus voting bloc in the village.  Incumbent trustees Dennis Cohen and Ralph Bracco received 1252 and 913 votes respectively; Allen-Hazell notched 620 votes and Mallia 615.  Given the rate of the community's growth in Airmont, it is now impossible for anyone to be elected there without Orthodox Jewish votes.  While Boesch won the minority of the bloc vote,  Cohen's broad support in many quarters suggests the possibility of a future mayoral bid by the former village Planning Board chairman.

The Orthodox Jewish voters of Airmont, however, differ from their compatriots in other parts of the Town of Ramapo, within which the village is contained.  They moved to Airmont for a more diverse, less crowded community with larger lots for more traditional suburban homes.  While they advocate for approvals for their religious institutions and some flexibility in local land use rules to accommodate larger families, you do not hear any interest in the large multifamily housing developments in Monsey's more urban core.

Political survival in Airmont now depends on effective bridge-building between Orthodox Jewish voters and the longtime homeowners, including many secular Jews, who oppose massive housing construction and fear changes to the suburban charm of the community's neighborhoods.  How the community's leaders cross those bridges will determine its future.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Throw Your Own Party

The Rent is Too Damn High!  With that grievance against landlords, Jimmy McMillan skyrocketed to stardom in mid-October of New York’s 2010 gubernatorial season, charming a Hofstra University debate audience.  After Jimmy offered to marry New Yorkers to “a shoe” if that’s what they wanted, Andrew Cuomo told the audience he was on board with the nominee of the “Rent Is Too Damn High Party": “I agree with Jimmy.  The rent is too damn high.”

Who says political party names don’t matter anymore?
While no officials of note have been elected on the Toga Party ticket, in New York you can run for office on the name of any party you want.  One caveat: you need to get the required petition signatures from eligible voters designating you, the name of your party and its symbol.  So it’s easiest to make up your own party in a small community holding a local election-- where you would only need a small number of signatures.  Hundreds of New York villages hold their elections this Tuesday—and in some of them, candidates shun major party labels for homegrown partisan flair.
There is a super hot election in Nassau County's Freeport.  Mayor Andrew Hardwick, a registered Democrat who has controversially claimed support from President Obama, is in a tough battle for re-election on his “Freeport First” line.  His fellow Trustee, Robert Kennedy, has accused him of being an autocrat in a pitched campaign. 
Kennedy’s party certainly aspires to big ideas—it’s called the “Freeport Unity Home Rule Party" and has a Thomas Jefferson-quoting page on Facebook.  I’m not entirely sure who the party wants to declare independence from, but the name was a welcome flash from the staid labels on many Long Island municipalities.  In Saddle Rock, the “Independent Party of the Village of Saddle Rock” faces off against the “Saddle Rock Village Party.”
A Head of the Harbor candidate on Long Island’s North Shore says he thought long and hard about the name of his party in the village's first contested election in a dozen years.  Daniel White is running for Mayor on the "Box Party" ticket in this Suffolk County community.   He faces the "Village Party" candidate. 
White told the Three Village Patch  his party "encourages thinking about both in and out of symbolic political box" and "is an affectionate reference to the Box Wood plant that my great grand father planted at my family home."
That’s all too boring for Grandview-on-the-Hudson Mayor Larry Lynn.  Lynn told me he started his optimistic “Life’s A Party” Party in 2001.  He said that in Grandview “by law or tradition” candidates do not run on major party labels.  He picked a musical note as its symbol and has run on the party’s line every other year since, including in this Tuesday’s election, where he is unopposed. 
Village Clerk Julie Pagliaroli says in even-numbered years, when two trustees run without the mayor's seat up for election, the candidates run on the “Block Party” line.  Lynn says that party got its name because one of its candidates, Trustee Joe Abrams, used to throw a big block party for the village.
The real musical party though is in Grandview’s neighbor, South Nyack.  Forget the Democrats and Republicans.  The endorsement you want there is from the “Village People’s Party.”  The mayoral election is uncontested; there is a battle for the Trustee seats though, with Cliff Weathers and Catherine McCue both endorsed by the Village People.  I guess YMCA can get a crowd going at a village board meeting.
The South Nyack conversation has focused on the impact of the new Tappan Zee Bridge, Governor Cuomo’s fast-tracked infrastructure initiative.  The bridge lands there, connecting it to Westchester County on the other side of the Hudson.  Trustee Tom Neff, a long-serving village leader, is fending off the newcomers’ challenge.
But Rockland’s Upper Nyack takes the party name cake.  Jennifer Chaitin is challenging longtime Mayor Mike Esmay in an energetic battle for the unpaid post in this high-end community.  Chaitin is under the banner of the “Girls Gone Green” Party, apparently named after the landscaping business she owns.  She has a detailed platform on her website.

Esmay is running on the stately “Bell Tower Party” ticket, which is promoted in a frequently updated Facebook page.  The party was formed in 1995 and takes it name from the bell tower on top of the Upper Nyack firehouse.
There are a  number of Westchester elections with familiar partisan divides.  In Port Chester, a diverse village with a growing Latino community, incumbent Democrat Dennis Pilla faces off against Republican challenger Neil Pagano.   The race has focused on the pace and scale of development, with accusations of campaigning at taxpayer expense.  (Port Chester is the only municipality in New York to offer early voting).
Tarrytown’s Mayor Drew Fixell , a Democrat, is running unopposed, as his community also considers the impact of the new Tappan Zee Bridge on it’s Hudson River shore.  But there the major parties there all run under the banner of Tarrytown United.
Perhaps the waterfront community will get a local branch of the Pirate Party, formed to reform patent laws.   The Pirates hope to avoid the fate of Delware’s “Blue Enigma Party” which faded from view despite winning statewide ballot status.  Rhode Island’s “Moderate Party” does not seem to have excited anyone either.
Israeli politicians do innovate with their labels.  In as display of egoism thought possible only in New York, incoming Minister Tzipi Livni named her party in Parliamentary elections this past January the “Tzipi Livni Party.”  The poll tested “Yesh Atid” or “There is a Future Party” won second place out of two dozen parties in its first election.
Maybe the way to rejuvenate our democracy is to throw out our existing party names and come up with new ones.   I can imagine the crowd a rally for the Tupperware Party.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Suburban Shootout: Election 2013 and the Politics of Gun Control

While the 2013 New York City Mayoral election will stir the downstate political pot this year, the electoral fortunes of Democratic Governor Andrew M. Cuomo and State Senate GOP Majority Leader Dean Skelos will be colored by battles for three County Executive seats in the city’s suburbs.

Voters in Nassau, Rockland and Westchester will head to the polls this November to pick their counties’ CEOs.  While the fiscal challenges facing those communities will dominate the campaigns in each, it’s already clear that the dicey politics of gun control is also shaping the electoral landscape.

Democrats have incumbent GOP County Executives Rob Astorino of Westchester and Ed Mangano of Nassau in their sights.  Rockland’s Republican incumbent, C.  Scott Vanderhoef, is stepping down.  The Cuomo administration, with its relentless focus on the suburb-friendly property tax cap, is keenly aware of its political needs in these swing counties.  The suburbs abandoned Governor Mario M. Cuomo for George Pataki in 1994, costing the Democrat his re-election.

Gun violence is on the front pages everywhere because of the Newtown massacre.  The issue was further inflamed in Rockland and Westchester when The Journal News, the regional Gannett daily, posted an interactive map of lower Hudson Valley gun permit holders on its website.  Protests ensued. 

Polling shows strong public support for Cuomo’s gun control measures, known as the SAFE Act, in the suburbs.  Support is high among the moderates who determine electoral outcomes and most fiercely among likely Democratic primary voters.

Astorino and Mangano appear determined to keep the focus on school safety and illegal guns, while steering as clear as they can of the Albany gun control debate in which they either alienate their anti-gun control base in the Republican and Conservative Parties or turn off general election moderates.
In Rockland, Vanderhoef is not running again and has kept mum.  But, strangely, Democrats on the Rockland County Legislature provided the votes to pass a strong anti-gun control and anti-Cuomo resolution that was proposed by the GOP candidate for County Executive, Legislator Ed Day.
Following the Newtown tragedy, Mangano immediately went on the offense on school safety, organizing multiple “Active Shooter” forums for Nassau schools to address potential school intruder scenarios.  Mangano also hung tight to Nassau DA Kathleen Rice (who recently passed on challenging him) in announcing and implementing a Gun Buyback Program for illegal weapons. 
Nassau, of course, is home base for Skelos, the GOP Senate Leader who governs with Independent Democrats, and who is taking flak from the party’s base for letting Cuomo’s gun bill on the Senate floor.  Many Senate Republicans opposed the measure, but Nassau’s Republican senators, worried about their appeal to the swing voters in their districts, backed it.  But the heat from the right is on—Long Island’s Sen. Phil Boyle is now calling his support for the measure a “mistake.”  Skelos’ power base is the Long Island delegation and if they are weakened by a local gun debate, so is he.
Mangano has been able to demonstrate a concern about school safety, a huge concern for the women with children who strongly back gun control, without wading into the intense conservative opposition to the state’s recently passed gun control legislation.  Mangano’s website lists no press statement on the SAFE Act. 
Mangano’s Democratic opponent will be either former Exec Tom Suozzi or Adam Haber.  Neither has made gun control a major point of distinction with Mangano to date but cracks in the Senate delegation will keep the issue on Newsday’s front page and the county executive will have to be clearer about his views without angering his partisans or the county’s pro-gun control moderate voters.
Astorino has followed a similar strategy in Westchester, though the Democratic-controlled Board of Legislators there successfully (and unanimously) passed a bipartisan resolution backing a federal assault weapons ban.  Astorino held a very high profile school safety summit with former NYC Police Commish Bill Bratton and released his own safety plan.  With Astorino now drawing a primary opponent to his right, however, he will feel political pressure from the Republican base to vocally oppose the state’s gun control law.  His failure to do so may make his primary tighter than he’d like, and weaken his prospects for the GOP’s gubernatorial nomination to take on Cuomo in 2014.
Astorino has drawn generally favorable press and adeptly hewed to the anti-tax message that allowed him to upset Democrat Andy Spano four years ago.  While he has played to the GOP base by vigorously questioning the county’s settlement of a housing discrimination case with HUD, social issues are not his game.
Democrats—whether they nominate Legislature Chair Ken Jenkins, Mayor Noam Bramson or Legislator Bill Ryan—are determined to make Astorino squirm.  Gun control is popular in Cuomo’s Westchester backyard and the Governor himself will no doubt drive that message home.  At the same time, Astorino can’t hug gun control unless he wants to become the Steve Saland of 2013, where a broadly popular GOP moderate is undone by a third party challenge from the right (Saland backed marriage equality).
Defeating Astorino would be a political twofer for Cuomo, reclaiming Westchester’s top post for a Democratic Party he successfully rebranded with the tax cap and sidelining a well-financed, high-profile potential re-election challenger.  Because debate on social issues like guns and choice are very effective in peeling Democratic women away from Republicans who run as moderates, expect an intense effort to paint Astorino as out of the mainstream on gun control.
Rockland is the most peculiar case.  Vanderhoef, who opted not to run for a sixth term, is focused on salvaging his fiscal legacy before he leaves office.  He is struggling mightily to convince county legislators to make the spending cuts that can bolster the county’s worst in the state bond rating and reduce its $100 million deficit.  Gun control is not on his agenda.
But it is powering the campaigns of his four (or five) potential successors.  Two of them are influential county legislators, Ilan Schoenberger (D) and Ed Day (R).  Both are members of local gun rights organizations and they oppose Cuomo’s SAFE Act.  The other candidates are Suffern Mayor Dagan Lacorte (D) (disclosure: I have done political consulting for and contributed to Lacorte’s campaign) and former County Legislator and Spring Valley Justice David Fried.  Lacorte strongly backs gun control, is a member of Mayors Against Illegal Guns and does not own a firearm.  Fried, a gun owner, has taken a more nuanced position on gun control, not directly supporting any specific proposed state or federal legislation.
Guns provided an early point of contrast in the campaign, when a local website solicited the candidates’ views post-Newtown.  But the battle really amped up when Day introduced a resolution in the County Legislature blasting Cuomo’s SAFE Act.  He was backed up (though some say simultaneously sidelined) by fellow GOP Legislator Frank Sparaco, who proposed a number of amendments to the resolution.   Sparaco is rumored to be looking at the exec race too.
The Republican minority lacked the votes to pass the bill.  To their aid came Schoenberger, who pioneered the county’s program to hand out trigger locks for gun safety but had taken a clear position against the SAFE Act.  Sparaco himself credited Schoenberger’s parliamentary skill for garnering votes from 6 of the Legislature's Democrats to pass the resolution.  5 Democrats were opposed.
It is an unpopular position for Schoenberger with Democratic primary voters, and the Governor’s office has made its intense displeasure with his vote known.  A political alliance with Sparaco, who holds sway over the Independence Party endorsement, has upsides, however.  Progressive Lacorte is unlikely to let the issue go away in the primary—but an upsurge in turnout by gun owners, a significant Rockland constituency, could help Day in November.  And there are many pro-gun Democrats, who will now gravitate towards Schoenberger in the primary.
The great progressive achievement of Cuomo’s first year in office, marriage equality, impacted State Senate races in 2012, but did not reorient New York’s tribal and geographic politics.  Gun control, another pillar of the Democratic social agenda, may. 
The suburban gun politics of 2013.  They are watching in Albany.  And in New Hampshire.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Scott Vanderhoef's Bipartisan Legacy

Remember the “Fresh Start for Rockland”?

That was outgoing Rockland County Executive Scott Vanderhoef’s 1993 campaign slogan; the energetic pledge of a school board president who vowed to apply non-political, business savvy to a county government weary from the nasty Democratic  primary that forced his incumbent opponent, John T. Grant, from office.
As Vanderhoef prepares to deliver his 20th and final “State of the County” message tonight, it’s fair to say the bloom is off the rose.  The county’s bond rating is the worst in the state.  Its government is approaching dysfunction-- unable to award bus contracts, maintain its animal shelter or even agree on a process to dispose of its deficit plagued hospital.
The battled to succeed the moderate Republican, who announced last fall he would not seek re-election, is a race away from his legacy.  None of candidates, in either party, speak well of the incumbent.  Two of the candidates, Republican Ed Day and Democrat Ilan Schoenberger, will be among the Legislators in the audience listening to tonight’s address.  Probably more eyes will be on them than on Vanderhoef.
But despite the county’s notorious fiscal travails, which began long before Vanderhoef’s present term, Rockland voters have kept Vanderhoef at the helm through many political seasons.  In his re-election efforts, he vanquished well regarded state and county legislators and a town supervisor.  When he sought a third term in 2001, he had no major party opposition.
Wild vagaries in the Republican political brand also never impacted his local reign.  Democrats who vigorously opposed Vanderhoef campaigns for Congress, State Senate and Lieutenant Governor supported his re-elections.
20 years ago, Vanderhoef energetically promised to run a bi-partisan administration—wise political rhetoric given the huge debate over Democratic Party patronage in that campaign.  But it is a promise he kept. 
Vanderhoef’s administration regularly hired Democrats—in his personal office, as his County Attorney and even as his Commissioner of Finance.  Sure, it kept political opponents at bay by employing Democratic insiders, but it also affirmed Vanderhoef’s commitment to avoiding a highly partisan culture in county government.  Republican insiders regularly carped about Democratic hirings, but voters liked the two party approach.  Vanderhoef retained a bipartisan sheen even when the county’s lousy fiscal news dulled his ambitions.
That legacy will likely spill over into the administration of his successor, whomever that may be.  Meeting the county’s immense fiscal challenges will require bipartisan consensus.  Huge departures in county employees over the past few years, and budgetary pressure limiting salaries, will require the next County Executive to search widely, in all parties, for qualified commissioners to help nurse the county back to fiscal health.
I first met Vanderhoef at his first State of the County message in 1994.  In a chat outside the Legislative Chambers after his speech, he asked me if I was interested in serving on one of the county’s boards and to send in a resume.  I responded that he must not know I was a Democrat. 
“I know exactly who you are and what your party is,” he responded.  “I’m not running a partisan government.”
And he hasn’t.