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NOTHING LEFT TO CHANCE
USING OFFICE STAFF ON CAMPAIGNS HELPS INCUMBENTS WARD OFF CREDIBLE CHALLENGERS

The nature of democracy is to favor incumbents. Even without the kind of lax ethics rules, legalized vote-buying and gerrymandered districts that characterize New York's distorted version of democracy, incumbents own advantages that challengers do not. From name recognition to easy access to the media, office-holders have an edge that may be unfair, but is real and unavoidable.

Yet, not satisfied with the built-in advantages, New York have we telegraphed our punch here? -- does everything it can to magnify the power of incumbency, giving it such overwhelming influence that qualified challengers usually don't even bother to show up for elections. Tuesday's election results simply reinforced that truism. The incumbency protection program devised by Albany puts a wet blanket on the face of democracy, leaving state government immune to challenge and, hence, to any pressure to change its destructive ways.

One of the most pernicious practices, disclosed in a recent story by the Associated Press, puts legislative staffers to work for incumbents during compensatory time they rack up during the long hours of the regular, six-month legislative session. It's perfectly legal, and taxpayers do not pay extra, but it allows incumbents to draw on a well of expert, unpaid help, putting challengers at a further disadvantage.

What is more, while many staffers might enjoy the work, the practice inevitably puts pressure on them to donate their free time to their boss, whether they want to or not. It's a kind of forced volunteerism.

Albany has a rich history of encouraging unethical behavior, of course. Each chamber of the Legislature gavels itself into business every day of the session, whether lawmakers need to be in the chamber or not. One of the consequences of this policy is that it puts into play a federal rule that gives lawmakers a tax deduction every day their Legislature is in session.

In such an atmosphere, it is hardly surprising that state government builds its system of incumbency protection on the shoulders of unpaid staff members. In another state, it might be possible to shrug at such a practice, understanding it to be a way for ambitious and energetic staffers to get ahead in the life they have chosen. No doubt, that is also true in New York, but being New York, the practice cannot help but be seen as yet another way our legislators cocoon themselves against those who would challenge them.

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