Bringing It All Back Home

‘Dysfunctional’ Legislature Now an Issue in New York House Races

Posted October 5, 2004 at 4:48pm

In both of New York’s two open-seat House races this year, a member of the state Legislature is either heavily favored or ahead in the polls.

But with the standing of the New York Legislature at an all-time low, the two lawmakers’ opponents are trying to score political points by tying the frontrunners to the mess in the state Capitol.

In July, the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School issued a study that concluded that New York’s legislative process is the most dysfunctional in the nation, dominated by presiding officers who stifle dissent and ram through significant legislation without any debate. And it is a well-known fact in the Empire State that the Legislature and governor have not been able to pass a budget on time for the past 20 years.

“Why would any voter want to send Albany politics to Washington?” asked Jonah Siegellak, campaign manager for Democrat Samara Barend, the underdog in the race to replace retiring Rep. Amo Houghton (R) in the 29th district.

Like the Legislature itself, which has an Assembly run by the Democrats and a Senate run by the Republicans, bashing it has become a bipartisan affair.

Barend, a 27-year-old Democratic operative, is taking on state Sen. Randy Kuhl (R), who has spent two dozen years in the Legislature.

Meanwhile, in the adjoining 27th district, where Assemblyman Brian Higgins (D) enjoyed a 5-point lead in the latest poll over Erie County Comptroller Nancy Naples (R), Naples has lanced Higgins for his votes and for the overall performance of the Legislature.

After Higgins criticized Naples in an ad last week for signing the Americans for Tax Reform pledge not to raise taxes, Naples hit back.

“This shows exactly how out-of-touch with western New York voters Brian has become by serving in the nation’s ‘most dysfunctional’ legislature,” she said in a statement. “That he’s attacking me for pledging not to raise taxes is a strategy I’ve not seen before. But Brian has raised taxes so often that it appears he is committed to them and has grown to like them.”

Higgins and Kuhl both defend their records — and, to a lesser extent, the performance of the Legislature.

“I value my [legislative] experience as an asset,” Kuhl said in an interview.

A recent call for reform in Albany by editorial writers, good-government groups and a few politicians has already produced some shockwaves. Three incumbents in the 212-member Legislature lost primaries last month.

That may be a miniscule number, but in New York, Assemblymen and state Senators are far more secure than even Members of Congress.

The Legislature “is definitely getting traction as a political issue,” said Brendan Quinn, former executive director of the New York Republican Party. “Everyone’s trying to jump on the bandwagon.”

And neither political party escapes criticism. The Legislature’s split control dates back to 1975. The state has had two Democratic governors and one Republican during that time.

The question is whether the perception of legislative chaos can actually affect the outcome of the two open-seat Congressional elections.

Given the demographics of the 29th district, Kuhl is considered comfortably ahead of Barend at this stage, though she has impressed state and national Democrats with a scrappy, grassroots campaign.

By contrast, the race to succeed retiring Rep. Jack Quinn (R) in the Buffalo-area 27th district is seen as a tossup, despite the latest Democratic poll showing Higgins with a narrow lead.

“In that race, something that can swing three, four points could be a factor,” Brendan Quinn said.

Cam Savage, Naples’ campaign manager, said the candidate does not feel that she needs to attack Albany per se. Rather, he said, Higgins’ votes reflect a mindset that is typical of an entrenched incumbent.

“We think people ought to know what he’s done,” Savage said, noting that Higgins recently supported a bill that says members of the Assembly can cast votes even when they are not present in the chamber.

However, the Higgins camp believes the lawmaker’s record of service to the district outweighs any voter mistrust of the Legislature as an institution.

Suzanne Anziska, a spokeswoman for Higgins, noted that The Buffalo News called Higgins “an unusually productive member of a largely dysfunctional body” when it endorsed him in the Democratic Congressional primary last month. And she pointed out that Higgins — who only has been in Albany since 1999 — was part of an attempt to overthrow Sheldon Silver (D), the controversial Assembly Speaker, in 2000.

Ironically, the top political aides to the Assembly’s Majority Leader and the chairman of the Assembly Ways and Means Committee — who doubles as the chairman of the state Democratic Party — have been dispatched to Buffalo to run Higgins’ campaign.

There is another twist to the “throw the bums out in Albany” cry that could come into play in the 27th district.

Two powerful county executives at either end of the state — one on Long Island, the other in Buffalo — have launched political action committees to defeat legislative incumbents, arguing that the gridlock in Albany has meant less revenue for local governments.

Erie County Executive Joel Giambra (R) crossed party lines to endorse a Democratic challenger in an Assembly primary last month. Giambra’s candidate lost, but narrowly.

Could Giambra turn his guns next on Higgins?

Jeff Hammond, a spokesman for Giambra, said the county executive — who has feuded with Naples, his fellow Republican — has not decided whether to endorse anyone in the race to succeed the retiring Quinn.

Meanwhile, in the 29th, Barend attacks Kuhl for being in Albany for so long and doing nothing to fix the problems there. Siegellak, her campaign manager, said the many moderate and independent voters in the district, which runs from the Pennsylvania border to the Rochester area, are receptive to the message and to Barend’s call for change.

“The Legislature is just a starting point to discussing what’s wrong,” he said. “It’s just the tip of the iceberg.”

Kuhl counters that reforms are under way in Albany and accuses the media of failing to report on them. And he argues that his work in the Legislature will serve him well when he gets to Congress, because he worked with so many Members of the Empire State delegation when they were state lawmakers.

“Run through the whole New York contingent and I know them,” he said.

While both Kuhl and Higgins are being targeted for their legislative service, Evan Stavisky, a Democratic consultant and lobbyist in New York, said the districts where they are running share more pressing concerns — like a shaky economy.

“Issues about the internal operations of the New York state Legislature are far removed from the voters of those districts,” he said. “I think it’s a second-tier issue in both those races.” But he added, “that doesn’t mean that voters are jumping up and down and praising their legislative leaders.”