Pledge or Else
Ed Koch’s group attacks legislators who refused to sign his reform pledge
In the final week before Election Day, former New York City Mayor Ed Koch is making good on threats to wage a negative ad campaign against all New York state politicians and political hopefuls who refuse to sign pledges vowing to support specific legislative reforms, ones he hopes will bring more transparency and accountability to the New York State political system.
Among those who have been publicly derided as “Enemies of Reform” are local Democratic Assemblymen Jack McEneny and Bob Reilly. Both politicians have joined Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver in rejecting pledges that have already been signed by an overwhelming majority of politicians from both sides of the aisle.
Koch founded the coalition, NY Uprising, early this year in response to widespread disgust with the state government. “Wherever I went,” the former state congressman and three-term NYC mayor told Metroland, “people talked about the dysfunctional Legislature and nobody did anything about it. I didn’t think I would be the one; I’m 85 years old.”
Koch finally sent out a public e-mail last March, lambasting the Legislature as “an abysmal failure and disgrace to the Empire State.” He had convened the first meeting of NY Uprising just days prior, with the intention of developing a strategy for meaningful reform.
“The most effective campaign is waged when there is a single principle to fight for, but that is impossible when so many good government advocates are involved,” said Koch in the e-mail, before outlining the three principles that now provide the basis for the pledges that they are asking all candidates to sign.
The pledges call for reforms in three major areas: redistricting, ethics and state budgeting practices. Koch has been joined by other notable former New York heavyweights such as Mario Cuomo and Rudy Giuliani in seeking to “end corruption in Albany and reinstate the public’s faith in government by offering real, honest and sensible solutions that legislators and candidates can implement, adhere to and be held accountable for.”
If a candidate won’t sign, Koch warned, NY Uprising will make sure that every voter in the state of New York knows that they support the “status quo” and recommend that they be removed from office.
The ads, which have been running online, target McEneny, Reilly and other Assembly members, all notably Democratic incumbents. The ad charges the politicians with being unwilling to “fix” the “broken” government system and charges voters to “throw the bum out.”
“Challengers sign,” said Koch, “and some are running against incumbents who are listed as enemies of reform. We hope the challenger wins. In cases where they’ve both signed, we don’t get involved. I believe that a lot of the incumbents will lose simply because they are not aligned with reform—and I hope they do.”
“It’s very impressive to a Republican when a Democrat turns coat,” said McEneny. “It’s less impressive to Democrats.” Regardless of the fact that he has gained office running on both tickets, McEneny said, “It’s the Democratic Party that put Koch where he is. He wants us to sign his pledge and then threatens us if we don’t. If I don’t sign this pledge, then they will actively oppose me—that’s the rule, isn’t it?”
McEneny says that while he generally supports many of the ideas behind the proposed reforms, he prefers not to sign pledges based on what he considers to be mere “sound bytes.” “These are like advertising slogans, and the problem is that, if you sign on to an advertising slogan with no qualifications, you can turn your back on your own fiduciary responsibility to the people. If the bill has unintended consequences that would do damage to your constituency or the state in general, then you become a liar because you said you would support it. That’s the difference between pledging to support legislation that’s very specific or pledging, for political reasons, to endorse a sound byte. And that’s what Koch has.”
“Oh, baloney,” said Koch. “I hope he loses. He just doesn’t want to sign and be bound, so we hope he loses and we’ll do what we can to make him lose.”
Assemblyman Reilly was milder in his criticism. “I don’t necessarily have any issues with his points at all,” he said of Koch. “But, I don’t think he had these pledges when he was an elected official. You’re supposed to make these pledges in office.” Referring to personal pledges he already made, Reilly says that he is reluctant to make any more, particularly to nonconstituents from downstate. “To return my salary to charities, to be independent of political parties and to visit the communities; those are my pledges. But, for every citizen that that comes to me who is not a constituent and asks me to a pledge? I just can’t obligate myself that way.”
Reilly also expressed disappointment with the “name calling” employed by NY Uprising in its advertising (“enemy of reform” and “bum”) and with statements made by Koch that he perceives as derogatory to upstate New Yorkers. “I think Koch has proven that he doesn’t know or represent upstate at all.”
Denying that the campaign is either a partisan or a regional issue, Koch pointed to at least four of the nine “trustees” who he says have ties to upstate New York. Mario Cuomo, Rudy Giuliani, Ned Regan and Alair Townsend all represent the interests of upstate New York, he insisted, and both sides of the political aisle.
“These are good-government issues. We went out of our way to be sure that we didn’t include any hot-button, substantive issues like gay rights, abortion or gun control. Those are for the local voters.”
Specifically, the ethics pledge promises to support the creation of a State Ethics Commission, demand comprehensive annual financial disclosures from elected officials and their families, and work to prohibit or mitigate “pay to play” campaign practices through which large contributors can gain considerable political clout.
“I voted for the ethics reform bill,” said Reilly, of legislation that was vetoed by Paterson and largely resembles the currently proposed reform.
“I have a problem on the issue of revealing clients,” said McEneny. “I think we have to exempt family law, guardianships. We need to exempt divorce, estates, wills, things like that; because, if someone is in personal difficulty or thinking about the protection of their children or family, they ought to be able to go and talk to an attorney without reading it in the newspaper.”
The redistricting pledge promises to support the creation of an independent, nonpartisan Redistricting Commission. Criteria for redistricting are set forth as well: All districts should be close to equal in population, and kept competitive and contiguous, and should not “abridge or deny minority voting rights” or favor or oppose any person or party.
“You know, I’m actually a bit of a wonk on this stuff,” said McEneny. “And I hear people say that it should be more competitive, but why do you want it more competitive? Shouldn’t you be concentrating on representation? I can’t get any of the people who call themselves reformers to address the discrimination against cities and city neighborhoods and the favoritism given to sprawling towns. I would like to see as much effort put into who gets to redistrict as to how they’re going to do it.”
“I’m in line with most of the things [Koch is] advocating,” said Reilly. “Such as an independent commission. I’m co-sponsor of such legislation.”
The state budget probably looms largest, as projects and programs face dire cuts across the state. The budget pledge is intended to make the murky process clearer and more accountable. The pledge calls for the creation of an Independent Budget Office, use of a rolling five-year financial plan to better monitor long-term effects of current decisions and the adoption of Generally Accepted Accounting Principles in the preparation and management of the state budget.
“I think GAAP accounting is very, very good,” said McEneny. “We’re doing it now. It’s the first year, so people are just seeing these numbers.” Saying that GAAP was approved more than a year ago, McEneny continued, “A lot of people are stunned. I think it’s only prudent.”
Dennis Tompkins, from the Office of the State Comptroller, said that the legislative budget has not yet adopted these principles and is, in fact, still “enacted and managed on a cash basis.”
“We long for it,” he said of the GAAP initiative.
“Shelly Silver has already acknowledged that he supports a GAAP balanced budget and enhanced ethics reform,” said Koch. “Although he doesn’t include making public the clients of lawyers so we know who pays him and others. I hope that we can persuade him. He’s undoubtedly the most important guy up there. But I doubt he’ll sign.”
The former mayor doesn’t expect Silver to be very effective at inhibiting reform once the Legislature is in session, however. “The first people that we got to sign pledges were the gubernatorial candidates agreeing that they would veto any legislation that doesn’t support these reforms. Shelly knows Andrew will veto legislation that isn’t impartial.” But former Gov. Eliot Spitzer battled Silver before—and notoriously failed.