With the loss of at least two seats in his Republican majority, the leader of the New York State Senate this month pledged his troth to reform of the nation's worst legislature.
"We got the message, loud and clear," said Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno. "The people want change." From the Legislature's other chamber, though, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver was ominously silent. His Democrats gained a seat in the Nov. 2 elections.
Reform was never a sure thing, despite the pre-election pronouncements of many incumbents. It was only several weeks before the elections that Bruno dismissed a report critical of the State Legislature, calling it "nonsense." With the pressure off, it will be easy for legislators to forget all about it. And it's not hard to understand why: If constituents were so hot for reform, wouldn't they have thrown a few more incumbents overboard?
But that conclusion ignores the problems of redistricting, an issue that is, itself, crying out for reform. The decennial drawing of the legislative map is a wholly partisan process in New York, dedicated to preserving the status quo.
By carving out safe districts and adopting other policies that tilt the election-day advantage to incumbents, legislators discourage qualified candidates from seeking office. How surprising can it be that lawmakers routinely win re-election, when most of them face only feeble opposition, when they face any at all?
In that regard, the election results are smoking-gun evidence of the need for reform. When the clamor for reform is as intense as it has been and yet the number of defeated incumbents can be counted on one hand, something is wrong. And in New York, when something is wrong, the first place to look is Albany.
Still, with the critical report on the Legislature by the Brennan Center for Justice and bipartisan pressure from county executives around the state, legislators nervously declared their support for reform during this fall's election campaigns. It is now up to their constituents to demand that they follow through.
They could do worse than to start with the Brennan Center report, which documented a raft of comparatively easy rule changes that require only the approval of each chamber's majority. With such fixes, minority party members could force a vote on legislation, rather than see it buried by Silver or Bruno. A Democratic assemblyman from Manhattan has already proposed such reforms, supported by two colleagues from Buffalo, Sam Hoyt and Crystal Peoples.
From there, they can consider legislation proposed by a Democratic assemblyman from Queens. Michael Gianaris wants to create a nonpartisan system of redistricting, taking the process out of the hands of hacks who draw camel-shaped districts to benefit the incumbents, and giving it to a committee whose interests are the electorate.
Even if New Yorkers keep up the pressure on state lawmakers, the legislators still may ignore demands for reform, assuming passions will cool and the economy might improve, giving them even more money with which to placate angry voters. What is certain, though, is that lawmakers will definitely ignore the need for reform unless they continue to feel the heat. This is no time for New Yorkers to relax.