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Creating the 'new' Democrats ; Party's goal of a changed image faces some specific tests

The New York State Democratic Party is busy trying to change its tarnished and competely accurate -- image as a corrupt organization in the pocket of special interests. So it proclaimed during its nominating convention recently in Rye Brook and, indeed, it may have made a good start on that project by anointing Attorney General Andrew M. Cuomo as its candidate for governor this year.

But a change of governor will not, on its own, repair a broken culture. And judging by the comments of Speaker Sheldon Silver, Cuomo's most earnest efforts are likely to be met by nothing better than indifference in the State Assembly. If the Democratic Party -- not just Cuomo -- is serious about transforming itself into an organization devoted to the needs of some of the nation's most poorly served constituents, there are some marks they'll need to hit -- some tests of intent. Here are some measures of the party's commitment to change:

Party leaders will publicly back independent redistricting and push legislative leaders to do the same. It is crucial for New York to abandon partisan redistricting, in which parties draw lines to ensure their continued dominance. Under that system, legislators have no reason to fear their constituents and are, thus, more easily manipulated by the leaders of their chambers. Cuomo has already said that, if elected, he will veto any plan that continues the current system.

Party leaders need to insist on tougher ethical standards in government, including financial disclosures by lawmakers such as Silver, who is also associated with a personal injury law firm. They can't make the Legislature adopt it, but they can let voters know if some parts of the Democratic Party aren't so interested in being "new."

Party leaders can push the Assembly and the Senate, if it remains in Democratic hands, to adopt all the reforms cited in the groundbreaking report by the Brennan Center for Justice, which correctly labeled the Legislature as being the nation's most dysfunctional.

The reforms center mainly on breaking up the power concentrated in the office of the leader of each chamber. In the Assembly, for example, no bill comes to the floor for a vote unless Silver approves it, and every bill he approves passes. Rank-and-file lawmakers have no power to force a vote, nor are the committees empowered to look for new ways to better accomplish public goals.

In those regards and others, the Assembly and Senate represent not democracy but a grotesque of democracy. The rot in its internal processes is so pervasive that it keeps the chambers focused on the needs of the big money donors, including unions and trial lawyers, and has thus driven taxes through the roof.

As the Brennan Center report noted when it was released six years ago, these are problems each chamber can fix on its own. No law or constitutional amendment is required. That is to say, it can be easily done, and is just the kind of thing a new Democratic Party should want to do: an important quick hit that demonstrates its seriousness.

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