Political Consciousness

Print More

ALBANY–At 9:30 a.m. on a Tuesday, the Alcoholism and Drug Abuse committee of the New York State Senate is wasting no time in attending to public business. On the agenda this May morning are nominations for new members of the Advisory Council to the State Office of Alcohol and Substance Abuse Services, which funds and oversees drug treatment programs. Senator Pedro Espada, Jr. of the Bronx has recently taken over as chair of the committee, a reward for switching his allegiance earlier this year from the Democratic Party to join the Senate’s Republican majority. He takes pains not to make eye contact with the handful of Democrats in the room.

Liz Krueger, the newest Democrat in the Republican-controlled State Senate, is one of them. At the committee table, she rifles through a stack of papers, searching in vain for any background information on the nominees. None of the other Democrats seems to have gotten advance notice of the candidates, either. Her colleague Dan Hevesi of Queens asks Espada to delay the vote until they can find out more about the nominees’ qualifications. But Espada, displaying a Bushian air of bewilderment as he leans over to receive an earful of advice from a committee staffer, responds firmly. “We have to move the nomination. We’ve been told this is a necessary thing to do,” he lectures them. “The concerns are duly noted. The nominees are passed out of committee.”

Krueger is no more successful in seeking discussion of a bill that would establish a local review process for new substance abuse treatment houses, giving mayors and neighbors influence to relocate or even block the facilities. “You might have communities that don’t want halfway houses,” Krueger tells the committee. “That doesn’t indicate a need for extensive regulation.” Unswayed, Espada calls a vote; the bill passes, as it already has the Assembly.

Krueger is a legislator with virtually no power. She can introduce bills, but they will never get out of committee unless she ghostwrites one for a Republican. If she calls a hearing, se shouldn’t expect anyone outside her party to show up. Likewise, if she wants to attend a hearing called by a Republican, she has to sit in the audience, just because they say so.

Committee meetings are so brief they are often over before she gets to them, and Krueger is not a tardy person (even if she still sometimes gets lost in the labyrinths of the capitol building). One meeting that rarely lets out early, though, is the Agriculture Committee’s, which has the power to influence hunger-related funding and policy–an area of great interest to Krueger, who spent 20 years as an advocate for low-income people before taking office. There, committee members can expect a feast with hostess Lorraine Hoffmann (R-Syracuse), supplied by the food producers of New York State. In April, the menu featured ostrich kebabs, farmed by a lone entrepreneur. The birds, and the farmer’s need to expand his markets, were the only item on the agenda. He had every reason to expect some help: In the past year, the committee has sought to add three cents in taxes to the price of eggs to create a marketing program for the product, and, in a measure that became law, granted tax exemptions to livestock breeders and horse boarders. Krueger tried and failed to raise other business that day: “I was taking away time from the urgent business of the people,” she recalls with well-flexed sarcasm.

Life as an idealist in Albany is a little bit like being a human on Mars, a planet Krueger says bears some resemblance to her new workplace. When she speaks up among her colleagues to address a chair in committee, she says, “Some of them look like, ‘You’re crazy–why are you bothering them?'”

But no incident this year captured the frustrations of Senate Democrats more than their attempt this May to introduce campaign finance reform legislation, complementing a bill in the Assembly. Under new majority-written rules, each party conference can only bring three bills directly to the floor each year without going through Republican-controlled committees, using a procedure called a “motion to discharge.” Only the bill’s sponsor can speak, and then just for five minutes. And when a vote is taken on the motion, any senator who is not in the room but has checked in earlier that day is on record as voting “no.” For all other votes, the opposite is true, which is why the chambers are usually half-empty during session.)

So when it came time for minority leader Martin Connor to make his five-minute case for an immediate vote on the campaign finance measure, the Republican majority blocked it the easiest way they could. They walked out.

_______

Is this what Liz Krueger spent two years and at least $1.5 million to do for a living?

As State Senator for he Upper East Side, she’s now running for the third time in 24 months for one of the least powerful elected offices in the state, against an opponent who promises to be well-financed and formidable.

Even if she holds onto her seat, Krueger’s involuntary paralysis as a Democratic senator is in striking contrast with where she’s been until now. Before winning the job in a hard-fought special election this past winter, Krueger was known as a notably effective advocate for the poor. She used her skills as a proselytizer, coalition-builder and dealmaker to create models for services, including anti-eviction programs, food stamp education programs, and the city’s first food bank. She got things done.

In Albany, Krueger now opens her door for progressive advocates like herself. She routinely calls her former colleagues at the Community Food Resource Center and other organizations for advice and ideas, and Tuesday afternoons bring to her office a passel of lobbyists and well-wishers from New York City’s social service, housing and health care agencies.

But even if her party were in the majority, she wouldn’t be able to help them much. If voters in New York City know one thing about how business gets done in Albany–a big if–it’s that three men, currently Governor George Pataki, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno, make all the decisions, putting Albany into perpetual gridlock. They also privately decide how to spend the vast bulk of the $90 billion state budget.

In theory, this should all work out just fine for New York City. After all, the Democrats have the state Assembly all to themselves, with their own committees and dollars and agendas. But in New York State, where Democratic voters outnumber Republicans by about 2 million the current order gives the Republican party and its upstate base disproportionate influence over state spending and legislative priorities. The stuff Krueger cares about–ensuring adequate resources for the poor, promoting public health care, constructing affordable housing–couldn’t be further off their agenda.

This year, rank-and-file members had about two hours to review the budget, hundreds of pages long, before voting on it. They themselves have a say on only a small fraction, about $100 million a year in each house, handed to them as “member items” to spend on favored district projects and to shore up political support. “All of a sudden, I’m Santa Claus? With your taxpayer dollars?” Krueger jokes, and it sounds like self-righteousness–except that, of course, she’s right.

But Krueger needn’t worry about spending too much of our money. In the Senate, Republicans get up to 10 times as much apiece to spend on member items as Democrats, according to staff estimates, as well as budgets for more staff, with higher salaries. (The reverse is true in the Assembly.)

Pedro Espada is now suing the Bronx Democratic Party in an effort to remain on the Democratic ballot this fall despite his switch in allegiance to the Republicans. He was only doing what he had t do, Espada swore to the court, to make sure that his impoverished district got more of the state dollars that it so urgently needs. As reported by the New York Times, tucked neatly into the 2003 budget was $745,000 in grants for the Bronx health clinics here he serves as executive director.

_______

For Krueger, the daily trials of life in the legislature are made tolerable by an admittedly utopian and to most ears ludicrous prospect: that New York’s state legislature could be a different kind of place, where members wouldn’t have to stop being politicians, but could start being effective public servants.

Good government advocates are convinced that New York’s state legislature is the least democratic and most partisan in the country. “Each session seems to be worse than the preceding–less productive, more frustrating,” says former Manhattan Senator Franz Leichter, who retired in 1998 after 30 years and now sits on the Federal Housing Finance Board in Washington. “It’s worse than embarrassing, and after a while you don’t want to be tainted to be part of the system.” The session that ended in June was notably unproductive for an election year, without progress on Rockefeller drug law reform, a minimum wage increase, brownfields cleanup rules or predatory priests. Governor Pataki and the majorities in each house are absolutely confident of their reelection, and they see no reason to mess with that.

Party discipline is enforced by a gauntlet of majority-written rules in each house, and the ability of both parties’ leadership to withhold funds from members who step out of line. The neat division of power between Assembly Democrats and Senate Republicans is also reinforced from without by unions and other big-dollar campaign contributors rewarding their benefactors. The minority leader in the Senate, 25-year veteran Martin Connor, is supportive of liberal members but not particularly inclined to rock the boat. In May, Connor shocked fellow party members when, at the groundbreaking for the Brooklyn Bridge State Park, he said that candidate Pataki had done more “things for the people of Brooklyn than I’ve seen of any other governor.”

But leadership’s iron control is also an inviting target for subversion. Witness the so-called Bragman coup two years ago, when a sizeable faction of Democrats led by a Syracuse assemblymember attempted, unsuccessfully and with painful repercussions, to depose Silver from the Speaker’s seat, complaining that they had little active role in lawmaking.

Around that same time, the balance of power in the Senate also appeared vulnerable. In 1999 and 2000, Democrats Eric Schneiderman and Tom Duane, along with Rochester’s Rick Dollinger and Albany’s Neil Breslin, decided to shake things up. They aggressively used the motion to discharge to compel the Senate to debate and even pass bills on gay civil rights, abortion clinic access and other issues Assembly Democrats were also pushing. At the same time, the Senate Democratic Campaign Committee, headed by Schneiderman, went on the offensive for the upcoming elections. The Republicans held the majority by only six seats out of 61, and the presidential race promised to bring Gore voters to the polls in force. Even if Democrats couldn’t take them all, the threat of losing some seats might be enough to force Republicans to reckon with the Democratic legislative agenda.

Krueger was the star recruit for the Democrats’ cause. Even though she lost to Republican Roy Goodman in a squeaker that took longer to resolve than Bush v. Gore, Krueger was the story of the 2000 Senate race: a liberal, wealthy, charismatic and competent Upper East Sider with an impressive track record as an advocate for the poor. Then Goodman departed his post for a job in he Bloomberg administration and the race started anew; Krueger battled Assemblymember John Ravitz for the seat, and won.

But when she finally arrived this past February, the State Senate was an even more inhospitable place, if that’s possible. Once the majority leadership restricted use of the motion to discharge, the group of Democrats found a new way to be nudniks: they staged a slow roll call for every bill, and debated each for as long as possible. The Republicans were not pleased. On one memorable occasion, leadership locked down the chamber, forcing senators to get permission even to go to the bathroom. “It has gotten so totalitarian and closed because of the effectiveness of the minority,” says Barbara Bartoletti, legislative director for the League of Women Voters. “This was a vendetta against a group of people.”

That backlash against the upstart Democrats is now defining the Senate elections this fall, and Krueger is being shown no mercy. She’s facing a challenge from Andrew Eristoff, an East Side Republican who left the City Council in 1999 to serve as finance chief for the Giuliani administration. As of mid-July, Eristoff had raised about $400,000–including $167,000 from his own family–and spent nearly as much, mostly on mailings, ads and consultants. Krueger had raised just under $81,000. That’s not her only new hurdle: During redistricting this spring, Bruno redrew her district to excise Peter Cooper Village, Stuyvesant Town and Waterside Plaza, the areas where Krueger ran most strongly in the previous races.

Meanwhile, redistricting has also put Schneiderman on the defensive–and pushed Dollinger into retirement. In early July, Dollinger, a 10-year veteran of the Senate and a dogged advocate for improved health care and legislative reform, decided to leave the Senate rather than take a primary challenge from Joe Robach, a leader of the Bragman coup attempt who has switched to Republican and is getting significant backing from the party.

Schneiderman has decided to fight it out. His Upper West Side district shifted north, to include heavily Dominican Washington Heights, where ex-City Councilmember Guillermo Linares, a Democrat, is now running with GOP support. Political observers wager Schneiderman will be able to hang on. But in some sense he ill still lose, because he’ll have to spend this summer and fall raising money to keep himself in office–not helping other Democrats run for the Senate.

“I wish we were in a stronger position to take more seats,” acknowledges Krueger. Hevesi is also leaving, after redistricting pitted him against fellow Queens Democrat Toby Stavisky. In Brooklyn, Democrat Vincent Gentile is expected to get a stiff challenge from Republican Councilmember Marty Golden. And in a new Brooklyn district, another former councilmember, Noach Dear, is favored; there are rumors that he, too, plans to turn Republican.

Indeed, some Democrats are livid at Schneiderman and the campaign committee for what the critics consider a reckless and counterproductive crusade. “It’s totally the biggest failure in a decade,” says one Democratic consultant of the 2000 Senate bids. “They pumped millions into that.” In addition to the candidate funds, the campaign committee spent $6.9 million in 1999 and 2000, including a $700,000 loan that is less tan half repaid.

_______

Krueger, of course, disagrees. She has already made good use of the one heavy weapon in the Senate Democrats’ arsenal: their power to pass popular legislation by turning it into a campaign issue. By letting voters know, over and over again, that Senate Republicans were blocking progress on a years-old measure requiring health insurance companies to cover birth control and other women’s health services, her campaign against Ravitz forced the Senate to finally pass a version just days before the special election this past winter, over the objections of the Catholic Church. This June, the Senate and Assembly agreed on a final bill, which gives religious employers the option of denying birth control coverage but requires it for everyone else.

“If I played a role in getting that passed, then pat me on the back,” says Krueger. But while false modesty is among her more traditional tricks of political charm, what people tend to remember about Krueger is the way she translates social conviction and hellish bureaucratese alike into the chatty spiels of a teenager pointing out the obvious. (Not for nothing does she mockingly refer to herself as Gidget Goes to the Senate.) “Mammograms, breast cancer prevention, do we need another study on that?” she literally snorts. “Pap smears, hello-o? Why is this so hard in New York State in 2002?”

Schneiderman asserts that even if the Senate rules were less brutal, political hardball would still be the only way for the Dems to get anywhere. “No one has ever gotten anything in Albany without political pressure,” he notes. “It’s not like there was a time when people would just stand up and debate the issues. That was never the case.” In this year’ races, he hopes to hammer the opposition on the Senate’s inaction on a minimum wage hike, Superfund site cleanup, unemployment extension, smoking restrictions and other measures that have wide popular appeal.

Krueger presents herself as more of an idealist. In consultation with her old advocate allies, she crafts detailed arguments for her positions and retails them to key Republican colleagues. Often, it’s to block conservative social legislation, like a bill that would have made anyone who failed to attend a court date for a misdemeanor ineligible for public assistance. Like most of the hundreds of measures introduced in the Senate every year, it was not even in play in the Assembly. Krueger says she puts energy into blocking political measures like this anyway because “I don’t want it floating out there.”

The channels for internal influence are there. “Bruno controls his chairs, but not as much as Silver does,” observes Ned Schneier, a professor of political science at Colgate College and sometime education lobbyist. “If you can convince the chair, you might be able to get some of your arguments through.”

Usually candid to excess, Krueger is disinclined to talk on the record about her internal lobbying work. Pointing out the obvious, Krueger notes that any Republican found to be working with a Democrat targeted for elimination “is going to have their head on a platter.”

Krueger also has to find hope in defeats. Both houses ended up passing a bill, scripted by Hertz and Avis, that eliminated longstanding protections for car renters, but not before Krueger railed against it on the floor and helped convince 10 Republicans–some of whom thanked her afterwards for persuading them to break ranks–to vote against it. “Despite the craziness that is our legislature,” she says of the lesson of that experience, “if you do your homework, make arguments, push hard, develop a level of what I’d like to think is respect from colleagues, you can get them to cross their own leadership.”

One issue she hopes to make headway on is housing, as ranking minority member of that committee and, she plans, resident expert. It’s not new territory for Krueger: At CFRC, she established an anti-eviction program noted for going beyond the requirements of its New York City contract.

A lot of her colleagues, including a significant chunk of the New York City delegation, couldn’t give a crap, as Krueger herself might say. Still, Kruger says she’s convinced her labors–the speeches, the research, the networking and nudging and fundraising–re not a waste. “Doing advocacy for low-income people for 20 years, I learn how to lose,” she says. “Often the biggest wins are stopping them from doing something worse than they intended to do.”

At the same time, like most career activists she has to reckon with the unthinkable. Posted right behind her desk is a New Yorker cartoon, of a secretary checking in on her boss’ schedule: “From 3 a.m. to four-thirty, I have you wondering if everything in your life has been a mistake.”

At 6:30 that night, after day spent at three hostile committee hearings, meetings with anesthesiologists, plumbers, and domestic violence counselors seeking support on bills, a DC 37 luncheon, a closed door member-item meeting with the Democrats, and one sparsely populated Senate session, the cartoon looked like a thought balloon over Krueger’s head. “I don’t know if I’ll be any more effective in government,” she says. “But I just looked at 20 years in activism and asked myself. I’m not sure I was effective there either. Deep down inside, I’m just a flag-waving patriot. I had people pushing me: Duane, Schneiderman, Dollinger, they brought me up here, and I was waving the flag.”