Monday, November 13, 2006

New Chief, Same Old Indians Opines on Day One With A Legislature That Rarely Ever Changes

by Erika Rosenberg

New York voters sent a mixed message in the 2006 election – we gave Eliot Spitzer, the man promising “Day One: Everything Changes,’’ 65 percent of our votes, a new record in gubernatorial elections. Then we sent him almost the very same Legislature to work with on changing everything.

For all that we complain about the state Legislature, just one of 212 incumbents appears to have lost in a close race – Republican Sen. Nicholas Spano of Yonkers. Three other incumbents had been defeated in primary races -- not exactly a show of voter anger.

Anger was more of a factor in congressional races, after the Iraq war and scandals in the Republican-controlled Congress fired up voters. Voters sent two incumbent Republicans packing – Sue Kelly of Westchester County and John Sweeney of Saratoga County – and elected a Democrat to what had been Republican Sherwood Boehlert’s seat in the Utica area. But three other Republicans faced tough races and survived – Randy Kuhl of the Southern Tier, Jim Walsh from Syracuse and Tom Reynolds from the Buffalo area.

We at the Center for Governmental Research worked to raise the profile of issues in this year’s gubernatorial campaign through our New York Matters project. We did a statewide poll of residents, profiled the concerns of each area of the state, launched a new web site (, and held public forums in Rochester, Buffalo, Syracuse, New York City and Long Island to bring residents, policy experts and decision-makers together.

We learned that New Yorkers are mad about taxes, worried about the economy and forever concerned that schools provide children with good education. We also learned that the strength of these concerns varies by region – in New York City, residents aren’t as upset over taxes, and in the Big Apple along with the Hudson Valley, they’re not fretting quite as much about the economy as in the rest of the state.

Here is the puzzle: If you went by our poll, Spitzer’s opponent should have gotten a lot more votes. Republican John Faso talked taxes to death and proposed cutting seemingly every tax he could think of. He put exactly the focus on that issue that many Upstate residents seem to want.
Yet Faso lost big, never having gained any traction from his position on this issue. Of course, he never had much money to get his message out, having raised just a tenth of the $40 million that Spitzer had at his disposal.

And what about those rosy results for the Legislature? New Yorkers told us in the poll and the forums that they were deeply disappointed in state government – three in four rated the government “poor” or “only fair” on dealing with the important issues – then they went out and re-elected their own representatives.

You could chalk up these seeming inconsistencies to the often-repeated list of problems with our political process. Money plays too big a role. Gerrymandering of legislative districts gives incumbents such a leg up by packing in probable supporters that quality challengers are scared away.

But there was something additional going on – Spitzer’s promises and popularity overshadowed the legislative races. With the outcome seemingly assured, the governor’s race was never exciting, but it still consumed voters’ attention at the state level. The activism we saw in 2004 around defeating legislative incumbents never reached the same volume.

It was Spitzer’s year. We all watched to see if a skeleton would come out of his closet or if he would make a fatal mistake in the heat of the campaign (remember in 2002 when Andrew Cuomo criticized George Pataki’s leadership after Sept. 11, and it backfired?). He didn’t, and the campaign never got that hot. Even a majority of Republicans were telling pollsters they planned to vote for Spitzer.

Spitzer did address the issues on people’s minds. He vowed to reduce property taxes by expanding the STAR program (though many policy experts view that as ineffective in the long run and really just a shifting of the tax burden). He promised to overhaul Albany.
But without a threatening opponent, Spitzer did not have to get as specific on the issues as voters might have wanted. He left out details and left himself a lot of negotiating room, saying essentially on issues like workers compensation, “Trust me, I’ll fix it, but I can’t say how just yet.”

With Spitzer’s first state budget due at the end of January, it won’t be long before voters get an indication of whether they were right to pin their hopes for a better state government on Spitzer.

Erika Rosenberg is a research associate with the Center for Governmental Research. This article originally appeared in the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle on Nov. 13.

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