“Enemies” of Reform Question Koch's Agenda, Style

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As the statewide primary and general elections draw near, some legislators labeled enemies of reform by the newly formed advocacy group New York Uprising are bristling over the categorization and writing letters or making phone calls to protest it.

New York Uprising, a non-partisan independent coalition advocating good government reform, was launched in March by former New York City Mayor Ed Koch. The coalition calls for non-partisan independent redistricting, “responsible budgeting” and ethics reform and identifies the criteria such reforms must meet.

On the group's website, New York Uprising labels elected officials and candidates who sign three pledges to enact the Uprising's agenda heroes. Those who do not sign are labeled enemies.

As of August 20, the organization had labeled as enemies 97 state legislators, or 46 percent. In the Senate — where the entire Republican conference signed all three pledges – 12 legislators, or 20 percent, have been labeled enemies. In the Assembly, 85, or 57 percent, have been labeled enemies.

In addition, 294 candidates for state office have signed the pledges, including all candidates for governor and attorney general. Only eight candidates have not, says Mark Botnick, New York Uprising's co-executive director. The gubernatorial candidates also signed a pledge saying they would veto any redistricting legislation that doesn't create an independent redistricting commission.

Koch says the preponderance of support for the pledges validates New York Uprising's agenda. “All these other people are out of step and are going to be defeated because they are enemies of reform,” he says.

Some of the “enemies” take issue with the label.

Assemblymembers Deborah Glick and Richard Gottfried of Manhattan, along with Brooklyn's James Brennan, say that they agree with various parts of the pledge and have even supported legislation with some of the same objectives.

For instance, Brennan agrees with the part of the responsible budgeting pledge that calls for the state to adopt generally accepted accounting principles. Glick voted for the vetoed ethics reform bill, Assembly bill 9544, which would also have tackled campaign finance reform. Gottfried backed Assembly bill 5279-B, a measure that would create an independent redistricting commission modeled after Iowa's widely touted system. But all three legislators say they have serious objections to parts of the pledges.

Gottfried sent New York Uprising a three-page defense of his refusal to sign the pledge. “I have, over the years, been a strong supporter of campaign finance reform and ethics reform,” he wrote.

Gottfried and Brennan say they decided not to sign the responsible budgeting pledge, in part, because they disagree with the premise that state spending is excessive. Brennan says in a letter to Koch that the state's budget deficit stems mostly from the recession – not from new spending.

Gottfried says he also opposes the part of the campaign finance reform guidelines that would prohibit campaign contributions from a person advocating the passage, repeal or modification of a bill, rule or resolution. Brennan agrees, saying he thought the prohibition would violate the First Amendment.

Gottfried says the proposed prohibition is “ridiculous” because it disadvantages grass roots advocacy groups, while privileging lobbyists who have enough money to get their message across without saying a word. Under this pledge, “NARAL or NRA or Empire State Pride Agenda would be prohibited from making a campaign contribution,” Gottfried says.

The redistricting pledge requires signatories to only vote for redistricting legislation that has the backing of the Citizen's Union, a New York City good government group, Brennan and Glick say. “Clearly a legislator should not prospectively subordinate his vote to any group for any reason, so I could not ethically sign any pledge that contained such a provision,” Brennan wrote.

Glick agrees. She also says she doubts the premise that a redistricting commission can be independent. “I've never seen an independent commission,” she says. “They're mostly wealthy, white men and they do have their own agenda. The notion that there's some independent group out there with some sort of valiant agenda, I'd like to see more details. I'd almost like to see it picked by citizens, but everybody has an agenda. It's not a 100 percent guarantee that you won't have an agenda.”

Opponents attacking “strawmen”?

Koch dismissed all the non-signing legislators' objections as strawmen. “These are foolish statements on the part of the people who are enemies of reform,” Koch says. “It's simply they don't want to have their powers changed. It's the old story of all power corrupts, but absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

In an interview, Koch argued that the pledges don't say state spending is excessive. “You won't find in the pledges many references to overspending,” he says. “It's a foolish argument.”

Koch added that the skeptics misunderstand the pledge on campaign finance: “It does not set forth what the rules will be. There will be a commission to come up with that the rules will be.”

And Koch says the pledges don't say legislators must enact only the legislation the Citizen's Union approves. All they actually say is that the Citizen's Union supports legislation that accomplishes the objective outlined in the pledges, he added.

He says it's unreasonable to reject his effort to create an independent redistricting commission for fear the outcome won't be perfect. “Maybe we can come up with something better, but that's always the case,” he says. “You accept the best and that's all you can do.”

A problem with pledges

In addition to their disagreement with various parts of New York Uprising's pledges, all three Assemblymembers say they don't like the organization's style.

Asking legislators to sign pledges seems hollow, says Gottfried. “It's perfectly clear that a lot of people who signed up for that pledge have never lifted a finger for reform – except perhaps their middle finger – and have no intentions of carrying out reform,” says Gottfried.

Glick — who never signs pledges, even those she supports — says New York Uprising's approach was also divisive. “Either you agree with all of these items or you're an enemy of reform? To me, that's a cross between Joe McCarthy and Richard Nixon,” she says. “That notion, the sense of you either sign this or you're an enemy of reform, offended me.”

And Brennan objects that the pledges prevent debate. “I do not find any room for discussion in your proposed pledge” Brennan wrote. “If a candidate has the slightest disagreement with any aspect of the items in the pledges, there is no room for disagreement.”

Koch says it was foolish to categorically decline to sign pledges. “You either are for reform or you're against it,” he says. “If you throw up obstacles and say I don't want to be bound, you'll never make change.”

Candidates and legislators can still sign the pledge up to and after the general election. Glick and Gottfried say they are confident their designation will have no impact on their viability as candidates.

“I think my constituents know that I'm independent and hardworking and honest,” says Glick. “I have a record that I'm proud of on progressive issues.”

“I do not think it would be realistic to say that being on the NY Uprising 'enemies' list will significantly affect my re-election in November,” says Gottfried.