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How One State Senator’s Navy Assignment Could Doom City’s Speed Cameras

Albany is a funky, opaque place — seemingly divorced from all time and space. The state capital, where the legislature in all its corrupt glory resides, has always been emblematic of a certain New York dysfunction. Good ideas go there to die. Lobbyists go there to get rich.

But something unusual, even by Albany standards, has been happening in recent days. The state senate is literally deadlocked. There are the same number of senators present in the Republican and Democratic conferences.

This is especially odd because there are an odd, not even, number of elected state senators. Sixty-three, to be exact.

The cause of the gridlock, on one hand, is simple: One Republican who is not seeking re-election, Tom Croci of Long Island, resumed active service with the Navy Reserves and left Albany before the end of the legislative session. With Croci absent, the Republicans no longer enjoyed their one-vote majority to pass legislation. At the same time, Senate Democrats still can’t force forward their progressive priorities, though they have tried.

The resulting gridlock isn’t just an inside-baseball concern. It has serious consequences for New York City, which has been a prisoner of Albany since at least the 1970s fiscal crisis.

The legislature has remarkable say over what does and doesn’t happen in the five boroughs. For example, speed cameras, which impose small fines on vehicles that break the 25 mph city speed limit, were installed outside certain school zones in 2014 with the approval of the state legislature. The speed camera program is currently set to expire in July, and by law, City Hall and the City Council cannot expand or even renew the speed camera program without Albany’s approval.

There are currently 140 schools in the speed camera program. All could lose their cameras, which have been proven to deter speeding automobiles, if the Senate doesn’t act before the legislature adjourns today.

Theoretically, a single senator could flip to the opposing caucus to make a majority, but that could come with its own strings attached. State Senator Simcha Felder, a conservative Brooklyn Democrat who caucuses with the Republicans, and who chairs the committee that needs to approve the speed camera bill for a vote, has said he won’t vote for a renewal of the program without the Senate acting on his pet issue — adding armed guards and new safety technology at schools. Democrats, understandably, are balking at the cost and the meaning for public school culture if more police with weapons enter the hallways.

Other pending legislative items, including scrapping the specialized high school test, legalizing sports betting, ending cash bail, and legalizing marijuana, are highly unlikely to be taken up in the 2018 session. Once lawmakers adjourn, they won’t be back in Albany until January, barring a special session.

This means that another year will have passed with little in the way of significant legislation coming out of Albany. New York’s voting and campaign finance laws will remain among the worst in the country until at least 2019. Universal healthcare, the DREAM Act, and statewide civil rights protections for the LGBTQ community will similarly not become a reality in New York before next year.

It’s important to understand the history here. This latest example of Albany dysfunction — a peculiarly gridlocked Senate — is neither an accident nor the fault of one state senator who decided to leave Albany early. Democrats could have built a majority a long time ago, had the breakaway Independent Democratic Conference unified with the main party years ago instead of forming a power-sharing alliance with Republicans — something Gov. Andrew Cuomo didn’t see fit to put an end to until earlier this year.

Republicans have survived in power not only with the IDC’s help, but also with the help of gerrymandered districts that, in 2012, were redrawn with Cuomo’s blessing. The oft-maligned Felder presides over a Brooklyn district that was engineered to elect a Republican or conservative Democrat, and which favored Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton in 2016.

There are many like it across New York State.

We can never know what Democratic unification years ago would have looked like, but one conference fundraising together with a powerful governor’s help could have stood up to a Republican conference backed to the hilt with cash from the real estate industry, Wall Street, and the Mercers.

Even now, with excitement for progressive politics growing every day, Republicans enter the midterm with a healthy fundraising advantage. Senate Republicans have $1.5 million in their campaign account, according to a recent state filing, compared to the Democrats’ less than $700,000.

The dynamics for next year are unclear. We could be entering a new era of unified Democratic control or yet another year of divided government. The speed camera program could expand to every single school zone or die altogether.

Perhaps we may get the most unlikely outcome at all, or at least the one that seems farfetched from where we sit: a healthy, functional state government in New York.

We can always dream.

Ross Barkan is a frequent Village Voice contributor who is running for State Senate in Brooklyn as a Democrat.

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After Attacks, Dems Push Stewart-Cousins for State Majority Leader

It was an amusing spectacle for anyone well-acquainted with the bewildering nature of New York State politics. A slew of heavyweight Democrats clustered together next to a statue of Harriet Tubman in Harlem to demand that one of their Democratic own, Andrea Stewart-Cousins, finally become the majority leader of the state senate.

The rally on Monday, organized by Harlem’s new state senator, Brian Benjamin, was held in the wake of the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, and a racial remark made by a man who might be New York’s most influential donor, the billionaire investor Daniel Loeb. The politicians and various activists took turns assailing Loeb — who had said in a Facebook comment that the African American Stewart-Cousins was doing more harm to children of color than the KKK because she is an opponent of the expansion of charter schools (Loeb later apologized and deleted the post) — and also decried a group of Democrats who have spent more than four years sharing the majority in the state senate with the GOP.

The hot afternoon on West 122nd Street was illuminating for a few reasons. For one, it brought together some big names in New York politics — Charlie Rangel, Hakeem Jeffries, Letitia James, Scott Stringer, Adriano Espaillat, and Yvette Clarke — who could all agree that the Independent Democratic Conference, the rogue group of eight Democrats who help Republicans control the state senate, needed to end its dubious power-sharing alliance.

Espaillat, a congressman and former state senator, now thinks the IDC should form a Democratic majority, though just last year he laid much of his political capital on the line to elect a Manhattan IDC member, Marisol Alcantara, who has supported keeping Republicans in power. James, working up similar outrage yesterday, happily endorsed Alcantara last year. And one of the rally’s more fiery speakers, Kirsten John Foy of the National Action Network, this year defended a Brooklyn Democrat who jumped to the IDC.

Adding to the political whiplash, Calvin Butts, the powerful Harlem pastor who thought about running for mayor as a Republican and once spurned a black Democratic nominee to endorse Michael Bloomberg for a third term, delivered a prayer at the start of the rally.

For the few self-identified progressives left who believe the IDC is needed in New York, it’s worth thinking about why Loeb, primarily a donor to national Republicans, wants them to exist in the first place. As long as a rogue conference of Democrats can keep suburban and upstate Republicans in power, left-wing priorities that are the bane of Loeb’s set — single-payer healthcare, more funding for public schools, significantly stronger tenant protections — can’t come to fruition. The Republican Party is dying in New York, but the IDC is its crutch. Someone like Loeb, out of step with the leftward march of the state, needs the IDC to retain his influence.

Standing in the crowd of pols, looking smart in a red tie and crisp suit, was Alphonso David, Governor Andrew Cuomo’s chief counsel. David, who is black, was there to show solidarity for Stewart-Cousins, and got a nice shout-out.

Watching David there, a smile frozen on his face, you had to wonder what was going through his mind when Stringer declared he would return a donation he received from Loeb six years ago and funnel the cash to a Democrat in Harlem running in a primary against Alcantara. Cuomo has taken some $170,000 dollars from Loeb, who has also donated $62,000 to the leader of the IDC, State Senator Jeff Klein of the Bronx, and the IDC’s campaign committee. Neither have any plans to return the billionaire’s cash.

Beyond Klein, the IDC mastermind and nurser of never-ending grievances, there is no one more responsible for the IDC’s existence than Cuomo. Ever wary of moving too far left, Cuomo aided the IDC’s formation in 2011 and did nothing as the group first denied Democrats the majority in 2012.

Since then, Cuomo has rarely used his massive war chest — or the coffers he controls through the New York State Democratic Party — to help senate Democrats. If the mainline Democrats, a minority conference that has struggled over the years with crafting a coherent and compelling message for voters, seem lackluster, they have been competing with a severe handicap: forced to fight multi-front wars against a moneyed Republican conference and the IDC while being undermined by Cuomo and, until recently, disinterested Democratic lawmakers.

This is where the shift is most dramatic, and why the IDC might be in trouble. Regular New York Democrats are treating support of the IDC as a litmus test of a person’s progressive credentials, something that was never true until Trump’s election. The IDC spent more than four years locking Democrats out of the majority, and enough people who matter now care. This is new.

Primaries could thin Klein’s ranks, and the loss of Republicans in next year’s elections may harm his bargaining power. Klein, though, is a survivor, and as long as Cuomo remains governor, the Bronx lawmaker will probably find a way to influence the senate as a co-leader with Stewart-Cousins. New York politics will stay weird.

But all cannot return to the way it was before, when the IDC reigned with nary a word from New York’s lame Democratic class and dodged scrutiny from the state’s most liberal voters. If people like Espaillat can be convinced to rail against the very thing they empowered, the IDC has a right to be nervous. It is a conference besieged, and that won’t change.

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The Curious State Senator From Queens

Out of all the defectors to the Independent Democratic Conference, none may be more at home than Tony Avella.

Iconoclastic and irascible, the Queens state senator has used his bully pulpit for equally admirable and frustrating ends. He never said he was a boilerplate Democrat, a proud progressive, or someone who plays well with others.

In some ways, the IDC was built just for people like Avella.

As backlash grows against the IDC for empowering a slim Republican majority, Avella is a cautionary tale for all those seeking the fast dissolution of the eight-member breakaway conference. Unlike at least one of his colleagues, throwing him out of office will be a serious challenge.

As a former reporter for a Queens newspaper, I spent a great deal of time covering Avella and talking to the voters in his eastern Queens district, gerrymandered originally for the longtime Republican incumbent Avella was able to defeat. The district snakes through the largely middle class, home-owning neighborhoods of College Point, Bayside, Whitestone, Fresh Meadows, Douglaston, Little Neck and Bellerose. Portions of the strangely-shaped district went hard for Donald Trump.

Having represented an overlapping City Council seat for eight years before his election to the Senate in 2010, Avella has deep ties to the area. He is attentive to constituent concerns and fiercely anti-development, a stance that has won him fans in the most suburban reaches of the district. His pet issues range from the amusing (making sure families keep their pigs) to the more relevant (airplane noise) to the quasi-racist (trying to fine businesses that don’t post English language signage.)

At his best, Avella is a maverick legislator willing to speak uncomfortable truths to power. Never a friend of the Queens Democratic Party, an organization that usually values loyalty and groupthink over merit, Avella has battled against development plans at Willets Point, where immigrant auto shop owners have been evicted for various megamall and stadium schemes.

At his worst, Avella is needlessly antagonistic and too often on the hunt for another office. He ran for mayor in 2009, Queens borough president in 2013, and is running again for mayor on a platform of battling the construction of homeless shelters. He’s also not particularly enthusiastic about protecting undocumented immigrants from Trump’s ICE agents.

A spokesman for Avella did not return requests for comment.

Since Avella has almost no chance of defeating Mayor Bill de Blasio in 2017, he is more than likely to be around in the Senate next year to face a primary challenger. None currently exists but a Democrat is all but guaranteed to emerge: Rep. Joe Crowley, the chairman of the Queens Democratic Party, has real enmity for Avella, and is in the process of hunting for one.

It’s worth remembering that Crowley and the Senate Democrats, for all their flaws, have valid reasons for reviling Avella. When he unseated a Republican who had represented the district for nearly forty years, Frank Padavan, he did it with significant help from a Senate Democratic campaign arm led then by State Senator Jeff Klein, now the leader of the IDC, which formed the following year. The Democratic Senate Campaign Committee spent north of $200,000 to get Avella elected.

But, as the blog State of Politics noted in 2010, the win was also a victory for a Queens state senator-to-be named Mike Gianaris “who worked his heart out on Avella’s campaign and insisted the former councilman (who raised his name recognition with a long-shot run for mayor in 2009) had a shot at unseating Padavan.” Gianaris now has Klein’s old job as DSCC chair and is a top-ranking member of the Senate Democratic Conference.

So Avella’s defection four years later hit Gianaris and Crowley, the only county leader particularly invested in winning a Democratic majority, hard. In 2014, Crowley pushed John Liu, the former city comptroller, to challenge Avella after he joined the IDC. (One of Avella’s first acts as an IDC member was to shower his staffers with raises. State Senator Jeff Klein, the leader of the IDC, also bestowed a committee chairmanship on him.)

Liu ran aggressively and almost won. Queens Democrats were hoping Liu, the first Asian-American elected to citywide office, could capitalize on the district’s demographics: while plurality white, the district is 33 percent Asian.

Liu ran on an explicitly anti-IDC platform, but without Donald Trump as president, there was only so much Democratic primary voters were going to revolt. It didn’t help that a political deal cut in Albany resulted in little help from labor unions.

2018 may different. Protests were already staged outside Avella’s Bayside office. There’s still the question of how much the more moderate district will punish someone like Avella for enabling Republicans; Avella’s defenders will say not much.

But if Liu, in a less favorable political climate, came within striking distance of Avella, an upset next year is not out of the question. (Liu has not been discussed as a candidate yet.) It will come down to, as always, how much voters really care about the crooked physics of Albany politics.

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Upper Manhattan’s Democratic Primary Is a Streetfight for the State Senate

Few Democratic primaries in New York City end up mattering, but one ferocious Manhattan contest may determine who controls the State Senate next year.

On September 13, registered Democrats in the 31st District — which snakes up Manhattan’s West Side, taking in a sliver of Chelsea, a much larger chunk of the Upper West Side, and the predominantly Spanish-speaking neighborhoods of Washington Heights, Inwood, and Marble Hill — will essentially vote to replace Adriano Espaillat, the likely successor to the legendary congressman Charlie Rangel.

It’s a quintessentially New York contest, pitting three racial voting blocs against one another in a district that has traditionally reinforced Dominican-American pride. Espaillat, set to become the first congressman from the DR, wants to install a loyalist, and his interests just happen to align with an Albany power broker who loves doing business with the Republicans, State Senator Jeffrey Klein.

Never mind that the loyalist, union organizer Marisol Alcantara, was a Bernie Sanders supporter while most of New York’s political establishment, Espaillat included, fell behind Hillary Clinton.

“He advocated for a fifteen-dollar minimum wage,” Alcantara explained, emphasizing her own working-class roots. “I’ve knocked on these doors, I go to churches, I go to subways. I know people in New York cannot live on the current minimum wage.”

Espaillat won his seat six years ago and spent most of the time trying to escape, unsuccessfully challenging Rangel in 2012 and 2014 before vanquishing several non-Rangel candidates this year, when the Harlem Lion is retiring. This being Manhattan, any candidate or voter will tell you affordable housing is the most pressing issue in the area. The district is about 54 percent Latino, 31 percent white, and 9 percent black, and whites are rapidly gentrifying the Latino enclaves.

On demographics alone, Alcantara, 43, should win, especially with Espaillat’s uptown machine — whatever it’s really worth — fully in her corner. On the issues, she may be the most populist, calling for eliminating the city income tax for anyone making less than $50,000, though former City Councilman Robert Jackson, aggressively backed by the United Federation of Teachers, gives her a run for her money.

The Harlem establishment is supporting the African-American Jackson, who led a lawsuit against New York State over underfunding public schools. Two years ago, he and a little-known candidate in this year’s primary, Luis Tejada, lost to Espaillat.

“I feel I’m the best candidate because I’m the only one out of all of them that has legislative experience as a legislator,” Jackson, 65, said. “None of them have that…my proven experience speaks for itself.”

As a legislator needs emphasis, because no one in the race arguably has more relevant experience with state and city government than its youngest candidate, 34-year-old Micah Lasher. A white candidate hailing from the Upper West Side, Lasher is your prototypical New York Times profile subject (he got his at age 28, don’t worry), a political savant who stumped for candidates as a preteen, co-founded the powerhouse consulting firm SKDKnickerbocker, and published a book of magic tricks when he was fourteen (The Magic of Micah Lasher: More Than 50 Tricks That Will Amaze and Delight Everyone—Including You). Most recently, he served as Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s chief of staff, and is making big promises in the campaign, including a “Marshall Plan” for the city’s beleaguered public housing.

“I’m not gonna go up there and get rolled,” Lasher said. “If we win a Democratic majority only to tinker on the margins, then it wasn’t worth anything.”

Lasher’s past still haunts his candidacy. As a nineteen-year-old staffer on Mark Green’s 2001 mayoral campaign, he reprinted a racy New York Post cartoon depicting Green’s Latino rival, Fernando Ferrer, kissing Rev. Al Sharpton’s oversize behind. Lasher later apologized, but Green paid the price in the general election when Michael Bloomberg, Lasher’s future boss, eked out a win thanks in part to disaffected black and Latinx Democrats deserting Green. Ferrer, strongly hinting that he hasn’t forgotten the Post cartoon, recently endorsed Alcantara.

In 2009, Lasher became Bloomberg’s point man in Albany, a position that entailed, among many things, fighting for the expansion of charter schools. He went on to found StudentsFirstNY, a pro-charters group that’s helped prop up Republicans, though his time heading up Michelle Rhee’s New York outfit is not mentioned in his campaign bio. Otherwise a staunch liberal, running with the support of the Upper West Side’s vaunted Democratic establishment, he’d rather not talk about that.

“We get very reductionist,” Lasher said. “Charter schools educate fewer than 10 percent of kids in the City of New York. It seems like we spend 90 percent of our time and oxygen [on them].”

In the eyes of a theoretical progressive beholder, Jackson also has his own flaws — until this June he was a registered lobbyist for Dart Container Corp., a Styrofoam company that fought the city’s move to ban the hard-to-recycle material. But ironically, it’s Alcantara who could end up scuttling the dream of a left-wing Albany.

Klein, the leader of a five-member breakaway Democratic conference that spent two years in an alliance with Senate Republicans, is spending campaign cash on her behalf, and Alcantara wouldn’t rule out joining the Independent Democratic Conference if she was elected. The Democrats are expected to pick up enough seats this fall to potentially retake control of the chamber, perhaps spearheading the kind of campaign finance reform (publicly-funded elections, lowering donation limits) that the likes of Alcantara would like to see and Republicans, as long as they’re in power, would block. Klein has played coy about which conference his IDC will govern with next year, since the GOP currently holds a slim majority.

Though Jackson is more outwardly critical of the IDC, it’s Lasher who will pose the greatest threat to Klein’s cabal. He has raked in about $330,000, by far the most in the primary, and would be a fundraising juggernaut for the Senate Democrats. A savvy progressive with a bridge to the moneyed interests that usually turn on their spigots for the Republican conference, Lasher is the kind of Democrat Klein doesn’t want near Albany.

Alcantara, though, downplays all the insider talk. Do the people in her district really care?

“No one has mentioned anything to me about the IDC,” she said. “They want to know what you’re going to do when you get to Albany.”

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Occupy the Farm Remembers One of the Movement’s Successes

The Occupy movement persists in fits and stutters around the globe, and though its inability (stateside at least) to resolve internal issues around race, class, and gender shouldn’t be ignored, neither should its successes. One of those is the Bay Area’s 2012 Occupy the Farm movement.

In the East Bay town of Albany, students, faculty, and everyday people took over the Gill Tract, property of UC Berkeley, to protest (and hopefully thwart) the administration’s plans to turn the land over to private interests — including Whole Foods. While sympathetic with Occupy, director Todd Darling allows the other side to have their say without reducing them to caricatured villainy. (Their own demeanors and hypocrisy pretty much cover that.) The film is riveting from the start, with its ragtag multiculti heroines and heroes meshing multiple identity markers (activist, academic, refurbished hippie), often within individual selves.

And they do so while dropping crucial historical and analytical information in support of their case. Brutal confrontations with cops and last-minute political maneuvering by government officials make the film a nail-biting experience even for those who know the outcome. But while Occupy the Farm ends on a happy note, it’s almost impossible to come away from the film feeling anything but unease.

It illustrates the staggering extent to which corporate interests dictate policy and shape scientific research (who it is for, where it is applied). That’s the grim dark cloud hovering over this Occupy victory lap.

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Indie Drama Low Down Proves It’s Hard to Be/Watch a Heroin-Addicted Jazz Dad

Adapted from Amy-Jo Albany’s memoir about growing up with her father, Joe, the jazz pianist best known for playing with Charlie Parker, Low Down stars John Hawkes and Elle Fanning as a father-daughter duo with a lot of love and even more problems.

A charming, gifted musician with a heroin problem, Joe does his utmost to shield AJ from the darker shades of their life — random visits from his parole officer, junkie friends whose addictions are even worse than his — but he’s too much of a mess to maintain the illusion, and she’s too smart to believe it anyway. Jeff Preiss evokes early-1970s Los Angeles with an initial nostalgia that slowly turns grim.

The back-and-forth tonal shifts could certainly be described as jazzy, and every individual player has chops, but the ensemble cast (which includes Glenn Close, Peter Dinklage, and co-producer Flea) is done no favors by a script that gets them more and more out of sync.

There are too many notes that, while not false, are neither satisfactorily resolved nor left interestingly unresolved. Joe and AJ drift back and forth from one another, she a wellspring of emotion every time he breaks a promise or squanders another opportunity. You can see him wonder what he did to deserve such a loving, forgiving daughter. After a while, so do we.

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The Outsider

It was a strange July morning in Lower Manhattan, and getting stranger by the minute. On the Brooklyn Bridge, sometime during the night, someone had swapped all the American flags for bleached white ones. As police and reporters swarmed the bridge, less than a mile away, in front of the 150-year-old Tweed Courthouse, two political candidates who agreed on nothing at all had just announced a surprise joint press conference. The announcement, emailed to reporters minutes before the event, said only that Zephyr Teachout, the left-wing law professor challenging Governor Andrew Cuomo in the upcoming Democratic primary, would make a joint appearance with Rob Astorino, the starched, suited, Roman Catholic radio host and career politician running on the Republican ticket. It was an irresistibly odd matchup. The reporters not covering the white flag mystery showed up and waited on the expanse of concrete in front of the courthouse. And waited. And waited. A podium bearing a sign with the words “Clean Up Albany” stood empty. The candidates showed no sign of appearing. Perennial long-shot candidate and comedian Randy Credico arrived, fuming at not having been invited to participate. Dressed in a bunched-up blazer and a yellow tie, sweat streaming freely from his head, he cornered Liz Pitt, Teachout’s finance director. “Nice to get a call from you guys!” he cried. Pitt smiled politely. Credico advanced. “You dissed me twice,” he warned. “Credico has a mean streak in him that’s hard to come out, but I think you got it.”

Read the full story in this week’s Village Voice.

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Political Corruption Boils Over in Albany

Shirley Huntley labored in relative obscurity for a decade on a local school board in Queens before she made the jump into state politics in 2006, challenging the machine incumbent, Ada “The Wild Woman of Albany” Smith, for a senate seat in the 10th District.

Smith, by then, had been embarrassed by a series of reports about her conduct toward staff—the legislature had reprimanded her for screaming at her aides, and she had even been convicted of throwing coffee at one of them—but still, few thought Huntley would beat her, since Democratic machine incumbents are almost assured of victory. And yet Huntley did win, by a narrow 102 votes, and came into office touting plans to focus on housing, healthcare, and education.

Eric Stevenson, meanwhile, was Bronx political royalty, a third-generation pol following his father and grandfather into a machine job in the 79th Assembly District, his résumé buttressed by staff jobs with two borough presidents and the City Council Speaker. He spoke of a “passion for serving people” and said his election “fulfilled a longtime ambition.”

From their disparate beginnings, both Huntley, the outsider, and Stevenson, the insider, wound up in the same place—staring down the business end of federal corruption indictments. For her part, Huntley was forced to make a deal to wear a wire by authorities, hoping to catch other pols in misconduct.

Stevenson was caught on a separate wiretap characterizing Albany as a cesspool of corruption, perhaps in an effort to justify his own conduct. “Bottom line . . . if half the people up here in Albany were ever caught for what they do . . . they would probably be in jail. So who are they bullshitting?”

Huntley and Stevenson certainly aren’t alone. The past eight months have seen one state legislator after another arrested, indicted, or otherwise censured for misdeeds ranging from taking bribes to raiding nonprofits to stealing from the proceeds of foreclosed homes to redirecting state money into their pockets. The list of fallen legislators is so long that it’s easy to lose track of the details.

In examining each of the recent indictments, what’s perhaps most striking is how mundane and inevitable it all seems, like it’s just the cost of doing business. The cases suggest that corruption is so ingrained in the culture of Albany that it ensnares machine candidates and reformers, the young and old, the neophytes and veterans alike.

“They come into office and they lose track of why they are there,” says a longtime political operative. “There really isn’t a way to vet these people to see whether they have a moral compass.”

In April, for example, state Senator Malcolm Smith was slapped with bribery, extortion, and fraud charges for a scheme that is almost artful in its pure brazenness. Smith was accused of arranging $40,000 in bribes to two Republican county leaders so his name would be on their mayoral ballot line. City Councilman Dan Halloran was also indicted in the Smith case for taking bribes to act as the go-between. (Halloran wanted to be named deputy police commissioner if Smith won.)

“Smith tried to bribe his way to a shot at Gracie Mansion—Smith drew up the game plan and Halloran essentially quarterbacked that drive by finding party chairmen who were wide open to receiving bribes,” said U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, who has become a kind of angel of destruction on the Albany political landscape. “After the string of public corruption scandals that we have brought to light, many may rightly resign themselves to the sad truth that perhaps the most powerful special interest in politics is self-interest.”

State Senator John Sampson—a former chairman of the Senate Ethics Committee who once sought to become Brooklyn district attorney—was indicted for stealing more than $400,000 from the sales of foreclosed homes that he was supposed to oversee and protect, and then lying to investigators about it. The money went to finance that campaign for district attorney. (In 2009, Sampson portrayed himself as a housing crisis reformer, saying, “Ensuring that people do not lose their homes is of paramount importance.”)

In yet a third brazen scheme, Pedro Espada Jr., the former senate Democratic majority leader, was convicted this year of robbing a network of nonprofit medical clinics that he controlled and spending the money on a lavish lifestyle—including deliveries of hand-shucked lobsters, spa visits, and a ghostwriter to tell his life story.

William Boyland Jr. was indicted for soliciting $250,000 in bribes to pay legal expenses in a separate court proceeding, and then again for steering public money to a favored nonprofit, which used some of the money to promote Boyland’s campaign events. His chief of staff was charged, too.

Vito Lopez, a powerful assemblyman from Brooklyn, was crippled by sexual harassment allegations and a sleazy secret payoff by the legislature to his accusers. He agreed to step down at the end of his term.

[

Carl Kruger, the former chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, is in the second year of a seven-year prison sentence on a bribery conviction. And who could forget Joe Bruno, the Republican majority leader in the senate for 14 years, convicted of accepting bribes? The verdict was vacated and an expected retrial is pending. Others to fall in recent years include Hiram Monserrate and Brian McLaughlin. The list goes on and on.

On July 2, in response to this critical mass of scandals, saying the legislature wasn’t doing enough, Governor Andrew Cuomo and Attorney General Eric Schneiderman named a 25-member Moreland Act Commission to look into violations of state election laws by the legislature. The panel included county prosecutors and other luminaries. Cuomo described it as a “powerful step” to reverse the raging river of corruption cases. He formed the commission after the legislature rejected his plan to appoint a special prosecutor to look into election law violations. The panel has subpoena power and can refer its findings for prosecution.

In an op-ed published July 8 in the New York Daily News, Cuomo called the commission part of a “one-two punch” against corruption that includes the first-ever public disclosure by legislators of their outside income and assets. “It is essential that trust and credibility be restored,” Cuomo wrote. “These actions provide the foundation necessary to rebuild the public trust.”

The disclosure forms, which are posted online at the state ethics board website (jcope.ny.gov), are interesting in that some are carefully typed and others are hastily scrawled out. The forms are notable not so much for the actual information they provide but for the fact that such a basic aspect of public accountability was never addressed before.

The governor declared that the panel was necessary to restore public confidence: “Go to any person on the street and say, ‘Do you think there’s a question with corruption in the legislature?’ The answer is yes.”

Schneiderman, meanwhile, also waxed indignant, saying the state’s campaign finance laws were “something of a national embarrassment.”

And Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice cited “a few bad apples, a couple bad laws, and a bunch of loose rules” that “can threaten the progress and undermine the confidence that people have in their government.”

A cynic might opine that the first response of government to an embarrassment is always to form a commission and then throw a press conference touting its future effectiveness. “Forming commissions are how officials stall or obscure facts from the public,” noted Leonard Levitt in his July 8 NYPD Confidential column.

Indeed, the panel is supposed to produce a preliminary report by the end of 2013 and a final report by the end of 2014. Pardon us if we don’t get too excited. And at 25 members, the body already seems a little unwieldy.

The reaction from the legislature was telling. Senate leader Dean Skelos warned that the commission should not indulge in a “witch-hunt” of lawmakers, though a witch-hunt doesn’t seem like such a bad idea. A spokesman for Assembly Speaker Shelly Silver made it sound as if the legislature were above the fray: “Campaign finance reform has always been one of the assembly majority’s top priorities.” Has it really?

Amid all the high-toned rhetoric, it emerged that five members of the commission had themselves violated election laws in minor ways.

One of the central characters in this parade of corruption was Bronx Assemblyman Nelson Castro, who was a pure creation of the Bronx Democratic machine. The county Democratic chairman, Jose Rivera, tapped him as district leader in 2008 for the 86th District in the western section of the borough. Since the Dems are so dominant in the Bronx, Rivera could basically guarantee that Castro would be elected to the Assembly.

Castro, a 41-year-old native of the Dominican Republic, had no illusions about his sudden rise in politics. He told New York magazine that he was chosen “out of a hat.” He had very little political experience. He labored as a community outreach worker and worked for a few months as chief of staff for another Bronx assemblyman, Adriano Espaillat.

He also had a criminal record—a grand larceny arrest for taking unemployment benefits while working (he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor), another grand larceny arrest in Michigan, and an arrest for driving with a revoked license and failing to pay $3,000 in traffic fines. In addition, he was caught in voter fraud allegations—10 people registered to vote claiming they lived in Castro’s one-bedroom apartment.

Somehow, those issues didn’t seem to concern the party leaders.

The voter fraud allegations percolated for a while and then led to Castro’s indictment for perjury in 2009. The indictment remained sealed as Castro agreed to wear a wire and inform on his legislative colleagues. In other words, he was an informer for most of his tenure.

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When the indictment and Castro’s betrayal of his colleagues became public earlier this year, U.S. Attorney Bharara said, “Here we go again. This has become something of a habit.”

One of those people allegedly caught on Castro’s wire was another young Bronx assemblyman, Eric Stevenson. While Castro was anointed by the party leaders, Stevenson drew his power from family. He was a third-generation politician, a member of a political dynasty that included his father, longtime district leader Eric Stevenson Jr., and his grandfather, Assemblyman Eric Stevenson Sr. His first attempts at winning his grandfather’s seat, first from Gloria Davis and then from Michael Benjamin, fell short.

In the meantime, he served on the local community board, labored as a community coordinator for former borough president and failed mayoral candidate Fernando Ferrer, and Ferrer’s successor, Adolfo Carrión. He worked for City Council Speaker Christine Quinn just before he won the assembly position. And now he was presiding over one of the poorest districts in the state.

His campaign literature announced that “reforming a community left in ‘dire straits’ continues to this day a work in progress for the Stevenson family—three generations later,” and he claimed his name was “synonymous with courage, leadership, and hope.”

Just three years into his tenure, all of that went to hell. In early May, Stevenson was indicted for allegedly accepting $20,000 in bribes from the operators of adult day-care centers in his district. He supported legislation that would get them state money, steered his constituents toward the centers, and sponsored bills that would have blocked competing centers from opening. The federal complaint paints scenes of the day-care operators handing envelopes full of cash to Stevenson in Bronx diners. He was supposedly reading the Bible when he was cuffed.

One of his constituents told the Daily News, almost plaintively, “I always thought he was on the up and up . . . He seemed all right.”

An incredible footnote to this sad tale is that one of Stevenson’s predecessors in the 79th District, Gloria Davis, was also indicted for taking bribes. She was nailed for bribery back in 2003 for accepting $24,000 to grease the wheels for a contractor who wanted an $800,000 contract to build a drug treatment center in the district. She had also been taking free transportation to and from Albany from a private jail contractor. She got 90 days in prison and five years of probation.

If Castro and Stevenson were products of the machine, then shouldn’t political outsiders be immune to corruption? Let’s examine the case of Shirley Huntley, who took on and beat a machine politician.

Huntley came to politics fairly late in life. She was 55 when she was elected in 1993 to the Queens Community School Board 28, an area divided between heavily white Forest Hills and Rego Park and the heavily black neighborhood of South Jamaica that was often at odds along racial lines.

She rose to chair of the school board in 1996, where she had to deal with racial tensions between black parents and white teachers. In one notorious incident, a white librarian used a racial epithet against a student, sparking months of fraught meetings.

Huntley, who once described herself as a “rebel,” was not above playing on racial tensions herself, accusing political opponents at one point of trying to rig the school board elections in favor of a white slate. During a July 1996 board meeting, when a white colleague asked speakers to raise their hands, Huntley mocked her, saying, “Raise your hands, slaves!” She was also accused of threatening a Hispanic board member who voted with the white board members.

In 2006, she used her school board profile as a springboard to run against the machine incumbent—state Senator Ada Smith. By then, Smith, whom the tabloids dubbed “The Wild Woman of Albany,” had been called to the carpet by colleagues for screaming at her aides. She had also been accused of threatening an aide with a butcher knife, attacking someone with a garbage can cover, and tear-gassing a police officer.

Smith’s district was a chaotic rectangle made up of the black middle-class neighborhoods of Rosedale and Springfield Gardens and parts of the more Caucasian environs of South Ozone Park, with a little of Jamaica Bay thrown in. Despite Smith’s image problems, Huntley won in 2006 with a margin of 102 votes out of 10,500 cast. It was a surprise victory for a relative newcomer over the choice of the Queens Democratic machine.

Huntley claimed she wanted to focus on affordable housing, education, and medical issues. At one point, hoping to call attention to predatory lenders, she deliberately defaulted on her own mortgage, though she backed out before suffering any penalties. The PR ploy backfired when it emerged that she had previously borrowed several times from predatory lenders.

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When disgraced former Councilman Allan Jennings, who had sexually harassed staffers, challenged her for re-election, Huntley declared, “Any person with morals or values wouldn’t vote for Allan.” Jennings lost.

She was next notable for initially voting against same-sex marriage legislation, and later voting in favor of the legislation, which was passed in 2011. By then, she was already under investigation.

Throughout her political career, Huntley had been running a nonprofit organization called the Parents Workshop, which obtained state funding and was run by her niece, Lynn Smith, and one of her aides, Patricia Savage. The group supposedly advised parents on how to navigate the city’s public school system.

A second nonprofit called the Parents Information Network employed Huntley’s daughter, Pamela Corley, as president. Corley was also her campaign treasurer. The treasurer of the nonprofit group was listed in 2009 as Norman George, who also worked as a paid Huntley campaign employee.

Probers also looked into a second earmark of $70,000 for another group called the Young Leaders Institute, which was run by her top fundraiser, Van Holmes. That organization’s tax returns were basically blank from 2004 to 2011.

Prosecutors with the state attorney general’s office concluded that the nonprofit was phony, and the state money was used not to help poor parents but to line the pockets of the people running it. Huntley was charged with tampering with evidence, falsifying business records, and conspiracy for her role in obtaining state funds for the charity.

The indictment charged that in an effort to hide the scheme, Huntley helped create fake, backdated letters from another nonprofit, the Southern Queens Park Association, whose president was also arrested. Flyers advertising sessions for parents were created, as were letters from made-up clients. Huntley suggested briefly that the indictment was “politically motivated,” but only briefly, because the other shoe was about to drop.

Huntley, now 75, agreed to help prosecutors nab her colleagues, just as Castro had. The feds wired her sitting room for sound and video, and she lured nine of her fellow legislators there and tried to get them to talk about misdeeds. How successful she was remains to be seen, but when the list of pols became public, they fell over themselves running in the opposite direction.

State Senator José Peralta, a claimed reformer who was one of the people taped by Huntley, said he was “confident” authorities would find nothing. State Senator Eric Adams invoked his law enforcement career: “I believe deeply in transparency and the pursuit of justice,” he said. State Senator Ruth Hassell-Thompson said she was “perplexed” to be on the list.

Huntley seemed to revel in the publicity following her indictment. Giving multiple press interviews, she insisted she had no regrets about turning on her colleagues, saying she “sleeps very well” and has no worries about serving her time in prison. (She was sentenced to a year and a day.)

And like Castro, Huntley also blasted the culture of corruption in Albany. “It’s all about money and power,” she said. “I don’t think most of them give a tinker’s damn about their constituents.”

A fairly shocking statement, coming from an indicted pol who has nothing to gain from making it, and a sign of just how far Albany has to climb.

In the movie Margin Call, Jeremy Irons, playing a finance mogul dealing with the latest economic meltdown, recalls the long history of market collapses: “It’s certainly no different today than it’s ever been. 1637, 1797, 1819, ’37, ’57, ’84, 1901, ’07, ’29, 1937, 1974, 1987—Jesus, didn’t that fuck me up good—’92, ’97, 2000, and whatever we want to call this. It’s all just the same thing over and over; we can’t help ourselves.”

Albany—like Wall Street—has a long and robust history of scandal, followed by the inevitable reform, followed by scandal again, and then reform. Whether Cuomo’s effort to clean things up will follow the same pattern, or forge a new direction, remains to be seen.

grayman@villagevoice.com

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Three Strikes, You’re Out: Albany Flops on Abortion Rights, Campaign Finance, and Medical Marijuana Bills

Remember the provision in the Women’s Equality Act that would solidify abortion rights here in New York in the face of anti-abortion bills popping up in state legislatures across the country? Remember Cuomo’s call for campaign finance regulation in a state electoral system that is drastically outdated and loophole-heavy? Remember the legislative push for medical marijuana in New York in a state with a record high number of weed arrests? Yeah? Well, none of them are happening anymore.

It all went downhill in the Senate just before the state government adjourns on Thursday. Due in large part to a coalition of Republicans and Democrats, the bills were stopped short from making their way to the floor.

Bronx state Senator Jeff Klein, the head of the Independent Democratic Conference, refused to allow the abortion plank in the Women’s Equality Act to proceed, even against a 67 percent approval rating from the voting populace. “I’m not going to bring a bill to the floor to fail” was his reasoning.

Because, as he told the Wall Street Journal, a “threat nationally to Roe v. Wade … didn’t exist.” Like the new laws in Alabama and Mississippi abortion bills that could close the remaining (read: one or two) abortion clinics in those states because of heightened safety requirements.

In terms of the campaign finance bill, which would simply limit how much you can contribute and establish a public financing system (because it’s 2013 and we don’t have one for state elections), the Legislature failed to garner enough supports; liberals were dismayed by Cuomo’s apparent lack of enthusiasm for the anti-big-donor message and conservatives didn’t want the system, especially after seeing what a Citizens United world can bring to campaign treasure chests. Apparently the whirlwind of the Most Ridiculous New York Scandals Ever in late March had no appeal here.

As we know, a measure to legalize marijuana for medical use, which would place New York among a growing number of states that now have similar legislation, passed in the Assembly a few weeks back. Although the Senate refused to visit it at this time, this one’s future still remains hopeful: the support from doctors, farmers and such still carries an electoral punch and there’s, of course, the economic gain.

Cuomo, the main architect behind all three of these bills, expressed serious dismay at his legislative counterparts’ failure to adhere to his agenda. “This has been an ugly few weeks here in Albany, and it has shaken the public trust,” he said in a radio interview. “People feel that there are questions, and I want them to feel confident, and I’m not going to do a half-baked bill.”

As of this month, the governor has seen his latest approval ratings yet during his tenure. His agenda may have failed him (and maybe his immediate presidential aspirations) but he’s not giving up the fight: For the campaign finance bill, he’s setting up a commission to look into the money at play here. Because, in the end, so much opposition to a campaign finance bill is kinda shady.

Enjoy your summer off, Albany. You guys definitely deserved it.

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The New York Senate Is Very Concerned About the Human Body Parts Trade

In any normal legislative session for New York state, hundreds of bills pass through the Assembly and Senate without garnering much public attention. They could propose renaming a bridge in a town you’ve never heard of after Pee Wee Herman. They could include changing the benches from plastic to wood in a state park somewhere upstate. Or they could be about human body part trade.

Yesterday, in a 60-1 vote, the New York Senate passed a bill that would prohibit the sale of human body parts, unless the practice is validated by law (i.e. hospitals, clinics, etc.). For whatever the reason, current public health law only covers the territory of human organs, not body parts. And that’s become a huge problem.

The bill’s justification (or its “logical nexus”) for passage is pretty grim. Apparently, there has been a spike in “scandals involving the illegal buying, selling and distribution of human tissue by funeral homes and licensed biomedical companies.” So funeral homes have been stealing parts of the deceased before embalming them in exchange for payment from large medical conglomerates–if that doesn’t sound like the plot of a horror movie, we don’t what does.

Luckily, the topic isn’t as controversial as Cuomo’s upcoming Women’s Equality Act. Since your average politician is presumably pro-human-body-parts, it’s expected that the bill will pass in the Assembly.

You can read the entire thing here. Let’s just say the bill uses the term “harvesting” a few times.