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.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Burbs Without Bloomberg: What a New Mayor May Mean for the Suburbs

It's never surprising when city folk dis the suburbs. Ed Koch called suburban life “sterile.”  The Times' recently reported on "scruffy bohemians" from Brooklyn "colonizing" Rockland’s Nyack-- in the Fashion section.

My wife’s cousin declined to stay another night once because it was too quiet and he couldn’t sleep. The great urban fear? The city becomes suburbanized.
But voters in the burbs have strong opinions about city life too. According to the Rudin Center, 25% of all workers in Manhattan live in the suburbs. 40% of the NYPD lives outside the city. And while non-Gothamites can’t vote on who will take over Mike Bloomberg’s bullpen in City Hall, they do care.
When New York City gets a new Mayor, we do too.
As a political kid in the 80s, I thought Koch already ruled every inch of New York (Democrats voting in the 1982 gubernatorial primary thought otherwise; he lost). The regional dominance of Manhattan-based media leads many suburban voters to know far more about the city’s mayor than they know about their own mayors and county executives.
And the truth is that the city’s Mayor has a dramatic impact on suburban life. From funding for the Long Island Railroad to development in the Westchester watershed, New York City’s government reaches into the subdivisions of Suffolk and Sleepy Hollow. In the upstate vs. downstate political tug of war, suburbanites cheer for the Mayor. When the heavily Democratic city is at odds with the suburbs—and their trove of swing votes in statewide elections--it gets downright ugly. Remember congestion pricing?
Already, the suburbs are emerging as a whipping boy in the 2013 Democratic mayoral primary. John Liu, the city comptroller, is proposing tolls on the East River bridges—for non-city residents only. Chris Quinn, the front runner for the Democratic nomination who serves as Speaker of the City Council, is pressing for the return of the commuter tax-- a bĂȘte noire for suburbanites. Only Quinn and Liu among the Democrats back a city residency requirement for city police officers.
Don't tell the Speaker's summer neighbors on the Jersey Shore.
Bill Thompson, who also backs a commuter tax restoration, won the endorsement of the heavily suburban members of the city's firefighter's union in his tight battle with Bloomberg four years ago. Bill DeBlasio, the current public advocate, got flak from transportation advocates when he voted against congestion pricing as a New York City councilmember. But his first council campaign leaned heavily on adequate funding for the city's public schools, which DeBlasio said were being shortchanged in state aid, to the benefit of the suburbs.
Among the Republicans, grocery magnate John Catsimatidis has suburban business ties; his Gristedes supermarket has a store (with a pharmacy!) in Westchester's Scarsdale. Before Rob Astorino's tax revolt, Westchester's Democratic County Executive was Catsimatidis' pal, Andy Spano.
Joe Lhota, as head of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, had to balance the needs of the city's subway riders with suburban commuting options. State legislators grapple with similar tradeoffs between the city's mass transit needs and suburban road and bridge funds.
The MTA, (with appointees of the city's Mayor, the governor and county executives from Nassau, Suffolk, Westchester, Rockland, Orange, Dutchess and Putnam) is generally the most prominent arena for urban/suburban jousting. But there are often environmental tensions too. The city's Department of Environmental Protection provides water to one million residents in Westchester, Putnam, Orange and Ulster Counties. Officials in Westchester's Yonkers, have blasted New York City for raising their water rates 170% over ten years.
City leaders (in a familiar lament for suburban homeowners) blame Westchester's high property taxes.
Bloomberg worked with Long Island's county executives, Republican Ed Mangano of Nassau and Democrat Steve Bellone of Suffolk, on public pension reform.

And, like his predecessor Rudy Giuliani, Bloomberg forays comfortably into suburban politics. At a breakfast meeting of the Long Island Association, the Mayor made sure to compliment the familiar scenery, telling the business group "usually if I’m on Long Island at 8:30 in the morning, I’m already three holes in and five over par."
The current Mayor cut an ad for GOP Westchester state Senate candidate Bob Cohen last year. He also provided significant financial support to Rockland Senator David Carlucci, an independent Democrat. His generous support of the Republicans in the state Senate has helped guarantee the outsize political influence of Nassau County. And, remember that Bloomberg for Governor moment?
None of Bloomberg's successors, save Catsimatidis, have the financial largess to become a major donor to suburban politicians. And the value of an endorsement by Mayor DeBlasio or Mayor Quinn or Mayor Lhota beyond the city's borders would of course depend on the politics of the moment (an endorsement by Mayor Albanese? Priceless!).
Because there is no African-American in statewide office, Bill Thompson would carry that community's clout in the suburbs and elsewhere. Asian voters are a growing suburban voting bloc; a Liu victory would animate them regardless of address.
But merely having a Democrat in charge of City Hall for the first time in 20 years, which remains the likely outcome, will be the most pronounced shift of all. New York City is the Bigfoot of municipal governance in downstate New York. Its Mayor has a bully pulpit that often exceeds the Governor's. Everyone talks about what Gotham's leader says--whether they live in Hunts Point or the Hamptons.
A new Democratic mayor who commits to significant policing reform, less hostility to unionized teachers or more liberal social policy will inevitably impact simultaneous debates in the suburban communities on the other ends of the city's bridges and tunnels. It rarely works the other way around. No city resident wants to see their mayor play second fiddle to Westchester's County Executive.
But if Chris Quinn or her colleagues ever want to head from Gracie Mansion to Albany's Eagle Street, they will learn, as Bloomberg did, from Ed Koch's error:
Say nice things about the suburbs, even if it’s just about the golf.

Friday, April 5, 2013

The Amazing Astorino: Can Any Democrat Beat Westchester's Republican Wonder?

It's good to be the Westchester County Executive.  The suburban county has a $1.7 billion budget,  5000 employees and its own amusement park.

But a lifetime pass for Playland isn't the ambition of the incumbent on the 9th Floor of the Michaelian Office BuildingRob Astorino wants to be New York's governor. 

Will his 2013 re-election stand in the way?

Westchester is a political palace.  Hillary Clinton went suburban cozy in its tony Chappaqua.  Astorino's putative statewide rival, Governor Andrew Cuomo, nests in nearby Mt. KiscoHarry Wilson, who ran a competitive statewide race for Comptroller in 2010, is a Westchesterian.  The massive investment in a replacement for the dilapidated Tappan Zee Bridge, which lands in Westchester's Tarrytown, is no accident.

On many levels, Westchester's Democrats are thriving.  Last year, they sent Republican Nan Hayworth packing from Congress and chose George Latimer for an open seat in the State Senate.  Democrats command a 10 to 7 majority on the county's Board of Legislators.

But neither Latimer, nor other popular Democrats like Scarsdale Assemblywoman Amy Paulin, are taking on Astorino.  Astorino won in a historic upset four years ago, besting his well-financed, 3-term predecessor Democrat Andy Spano in a suburban tax revolt.  Astorino failed to fell Spano four years earlier.  In 2009, the radio host powered to a convincing victory with thousands of Democratic votes.

So who are the Democratic Davids willing to tussle with this GOP Goliath?  A diverse trio, each representing a distinct slice of Westchester's Democratic electorate.  Democrats agreed to forgo a primary and embrace whomever wins the party's vote of its district leaders on April 24th. 

The loudest voice among the challengers is the current chief of the County Legislature.  Ken Jenkins, a Yonkers Democrat, has tangled with Astorino at every turn.  Jenkins has cast himself a defender of Democratic values and Astorino as a Tea Party conservative.  He has fought Astorino's cuts to child care and opposed public transit fare hikes.  He has sued (sometimes successfully) to limit the County Executive's power. 

With a solid base in Yonkers (the Southern Westchester city will cast 16.5% of the votes at the convention) and some surprising support in the county's northern Somers, Jenkins has a path to the nomination.  The African-American Jenkins will also pull support in heavily minority Mt. Vernon, which casts a bit under 11% of the vote.

But Jenkins political challenge in government has never been building a base, it's been getting and holding a consensus.  Though he was selected by his Democratic colleagues as their Chairman, he had to unseat fellow Legislator, and current opponent for the party' nomination, Bill Ryan to do it.  And two of Jenkins fellow Democrats humiliated the chairman this past December, when they bolted from the party's opposition to Astorino's proposed budget and made a deal with their GOP colleagues.

Jenkins critics cite these internal party battles as a temperament issue for the Chairman; his supporters view it as the price for Jenkins' willingness to do battle for their values.

Ryan, of White Plains, has a deeper governmental resume than Jenkins or Noam Bramson, the New Rochelle Mayor who splashily entered the race in December.  Ryan served in the State Assembly from 1982 to 1984, famously beaten by the then obscure Mayor of Peekskill, George Pataki in 1984 Reagan landslide.  Well regarded by his colleagues in Albany, Ryan remained on the Assembly Democrats' payroll as a regional liaison for 18 years after losing his election.

White Plains has 6.9% of the vote.  Ryan is a popular figure among the city's Democrats and most of the district leaders there support him.  And with decades of generally favorable relationships with Democrats across the county and state who respect his years of service, Ryan has many loyalties to call upon-- no small things in vote contained to party insiders.  He has picked up support in Peekskill too, leading some to suggest a Ryan rally.

Bramson, who has lead New Rochelle since 2006, is the only Democrat in the race with executive, rather than legislative, experience.  Once heralded as the "Boy-Wonder Mayor", Bramson's campaign rollout has been impressive and its "inclusive Westchester" message tailored to the liberal women that vote heavily in Democratic primaries.  Endorsements from progressive brand names like Congresswoman Nita Lowey have helped.

Bramson gets points for youth and polish-- and electability.  Some Democratic leaders believe that only Bramson-- an outsider to the rough battles between Astorino and county lawmakers like Jenkins and Ryan-- can out reform Astorino's own outsider image.  And Bramson's campaign, while focused on winning the nomination, is also already thinking about November- and how to increase Democrat turnout numbers from their abyssmal levels in 2009.

Bramson has also lead the race in fundraising.  In the last reporting period, he had $528,000 in the bank compared with $218,000 for Jenkins.  Ryan posted $43,000. 

But that's a pittance to Astorino's current  $2.2 million-- and the $4 million the Democrats expect the GOP incumbent to spend on his re-election.

The Democrat with the most at stake, Cuomo, has been mum on the internal party jockeying.  Speculation about Astorino's 2014 gubernatorial ambitions is being aggressively stoked-- by Astorino boosters looking to improve his fundraising prospects and by Cuomo fans looking to portray the incumbent as more focused on his political future than Westchester's present problems.

Democrats acknowledge Astorino's solid favorability numbers in party polling.  But significant spending by state Democrats once the nominee is selected could erode that.  Stopping a strong Astorino win in Cuomo's home county is a top tier political objective of the Governor's allies.

What is absent amid all the jockeying, however, is a Democratic consensus on how to oust Astorino.  When discussing the race, Democrats cite the county's growing Democratic party enrollment edge.  And Astorino's heated resistance to a federal fair housing order has encountered judicial hostility that could begin to rub swing voters the wrong way while energizing black and Latino Democrats.

But successful campaigns are those that have credible narratives and Astorino has honed his: protecting property taxpayers with three consecutive no tax hike budgets.  County taxpayers have tolerated the consequent service cuts, even while disliking them.  And the County Executive relentlessly polishes his outsider image-- even dressing up as Moses for Passover seders.  Jews are a significant, mostly Democratic, Westchester voting bloc.

With a multi-million dollar campaign chest, stable tax rates and divided opposition in the County Legislature, Astorino is as well-positioned as any GOP incumbent could be in a county where Democrats outnumber Republicans 250,000 to 132,000.

But the Democrats' suprising unity in Westchester after a tradition of messy primaries is the mark of party seeking victory.  And Cuomo allies in the political bohemoths like Local 1199 understand what is at stake.

Hillary Clinton has some free time too.