AG Schneiderman at Tweed Courthouse on Wednesday (Ben Max)
Standing on the steps of Manhattan's Tweed Courthouse, surrounded by activists, Attorney General Eric Schneiderman unveiled a legislative package Wednesday that is designed to challenge Gov. Andrew Cuomo and lawmakers who have written off negotiating ethics reform this year despite the arrest of two of the most powerful men in Albany on corruption charges.
"I'm done vouching for incremental reforms," Schneiderman announced to cheers from the gathered crowd on the steps of Tweed, his unamplified voice somewhat drowned out by the roar of passing traffic on Chambers Street.
Schneiderman and his ambitious reform package aimed at changing the way business is done in Albany are likely to be drowned out in Albany as well. Shell-shocked Senate Republicans are looking to get out of Albany without moving much major legislation and the conference has shown cracks since selecting Sen. John Flanagan of Long Island as the replacement for recently-arrested Sen. Dean Skelos. Cuomo has gone silent on ethics reform since Skelos' arrest after having pushed his own set of reforms in the wake of the arrest of former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, a Democrat. Cuomo is one of the largest beneficiaries of donations from Glenwood Management, a real estate firm connected to the cases against Skelos and Silver. Cuomo has faced major public backlash on his handling of ethics reform and Schneiderman is also a political nemesis, making it less likely that many legislators in Albany will champion the package.
"What have we heard from our elected officials in Albany?" Dick Dadey, executive director of Citizens Union, asked the crowd. "Silence," he responded. Dadey lamented the dozens of legislators who've been indicted since 2000 and congratulated Schneiderman for taking steps to fill the current void in addressing reform.
Schneiderman's proposals include little that is new - many of them have passed the Assembly as one-house bills only to be ignored in the Senate. The AG outlined much of what he has now fashioned into legislation in a speech earlier this year at a Citizens Union event. But, by presenting them as a legislative package Schneiderman is issuing a simultaneous indictment of how Albany operates and a challenge to Cuomo and the Legislature to confront it.
"These proposals won't make for exciting headlines or stir great passions," wrote Schneiderman in a new Albany Times Union op-ed, "but they attack a system that cries out for change every time the public interest is ignored in Albany."
Schneiderman proposes making the Legislature full time so that legislators would have "no other 'clients' than the people of New York." Their salaries would be increased. Legislative terms would become four years so that officials would have more time to do their jobs and focus less on fundraising. The campaign finance system would be tweaked by closing the existing LLC loophole, lowering donation limits for corporations and lobbyists, and creating a public matching system for small donations in order to increase their impact. It would now be a felony to engage in "self-dealing" and the AG would be given the long-sought-after power to investigate public corruption.
While many advocates see Schneiderman's ethics push as necessary during a year when two legislative leaders have been arrested for corruption, others see the package as a direct assault on Cuomo, who is foundering in the polls and faces steep resistance from members of his own party who feel he has betrayed them time and again both politically and legislatively. Many Senate Democrats talk of Schneiderman in a manner as though he is their future savior, the governor yet to be sworn in. "There is a void where the governor should be right now," said one Senate Democrat. "It's up to Eric to fill that spot or who knows what will."
It's hard to miss that Schneiderman debuted his proposal at the very place Cuomo launched his campaign for governor in 2010 pledging that "job one is going to be to clean up Albany," and "make the government work for the people." While he's made significant progress on the state's budget operations and passed several major bills, Cuomo has pushed for incremental ethics reforms while declaring them the "toughest in the nation," interfered with and closed the commission he called to investigate public corruption, and stressed his close relationship and ability to cut deals with the two legislative leaders who currently face federal corruption charges.
"Remarkably, after the Governor and the new leaders of the legislature met on May 13, it became clear that ethics and campaign finance reform are not even on the agenda as the legislative session draws to a close," Schneiderman wrote in the Times Union. "This glaring omission – if not corrected – would do a disservice to the lion's share of elected officials who are honorable public servants, tainted by the misconduct of the few."
Schneiderman previously pressed Cuomo for the power to investigate public corruption only to be rebuffed. Cuomo pushed for the same power when he was AG. The two also fought over settlement funds won from major banks. Cuomo and the Legislature eventually cut a deal to sweep the monies into the state's general fund and out from under Schneiderman.
On Wednesday, Schneiderman's announcement featured statements from representatives of progressive advocacy groups like Citizen Action and New York Communities for Change. The activists spoke about how they felt issues they hold important like rent regulations and a minimum wage increase have been held hostage by special interests that have greater access to policymakers thanks to their donations. The press conference appeared in contrast with Cuomo's highly-staged public announcements, with Schneiderman showing himself as a man of the people.
One reporter asked how he planned to get his reform package through the Legislature. "I'm not going to get it passed," said Schneiderman beaming a wide grin, "The people of New York are going to get this passed!" The crowd cheered.
by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette