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Journal-News: Running the meter on Albany politicians

By Phil Reisman, 9/21/16

There’s good reason why state legislators get re-elected over and over again, despite the never-ending stream of well-publicized indictments, convictions and perp walks.

The permanence falls under the Incumbents Protection Act, a rigged game of maps, money and member items.

Maps are the gerrymandered districts, the crazy-quilt drawing of lines designed to favor one party over another. Money is the filthy lucre supplied by special interests in the form of campaign donations. Member items, or earmarks, are the slabs of bacon the legislator brings home to fund local projects like putting a new roof on the community senior center.

The “legislation” ensuring elective perpetuity is an old joke in Albany, but it isn’t all that funny.

Julie Killian, a Rye Republican running for the state Senate in the 37th District, has made an issue out of what she calls “political careerism,” and believes it is a root cause of corruption and other ills that have earned New York a D-minus from the Center for Public Integrity, which must have been generously grading on a curve.

Killian believes the answer to the problem is a mandatory measure that would throw the bums out.

She proposes term limits — and has pledged to introduce term-limit legislation if she manages to defeat incumbent Democrat George Latimer, who also lives in Rye. (The 37th is a typically incongruous district that zigzags through 10 Westchester municipalities from Bedford to Yonkers.) Last week, Killian asked voters to sign an online petition supporting the idea.

So far the petition has garnered only 23 signatures, a list that includes Killian’s name and that of her campaign spokesman, William O’Reilly. But that doesn’t mean voters don’t like term limits. In fact, they love the idea.

One statewide poll by the Siena College Research Institute showed that 82 percent of voters surveyed believe that term limits should be imposed on members of both houses of the Legislature — and about one-third think their own elected representatives are corrupt. To think: that poll was taken two full years before Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos were even indicted.

The anger of the electorate grows with every fresh scandal.

“It’s sort of the global warming equivalent,” said Blair Horner, the legislative director of the watchdog New York Public Interest Research Group. “Every year is a new record when it comes to seeing pitchforks and torches outside the window of the capital building.”

He added, “It’s all because of Bharara,” a reference to U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, a man who never seems to tire of putting crooked pols behind bars.

Killian, who currently sits on the Rye City Council, said she would serve as a “citizen legislator” and limit herself to between eight and 12 years in office. All state legislators serve two-year terms.

She points out that her opponent, Latimer, has been in public office for 28 years — though she omits the fact that he has been in the Senate for only four of those years. Before that Latimer served in the Assembly, the Westchester County Board of Legislators and the Rye City Council. A campaign flier, Killian mocked Latimer for taking office when “Dirty Dancing was steaming up the silver screen and Alf was the hottest thing on primetime television.”

Horner said achieving term limits would be a difficult task because it requires an amendment to the state Constitution. At any rate, he questioned whether it would put much of a dent in corruption.

“I don’t know how much of a difference it makes because, humans being humans, unless you have effective policing you don’t have higher ethical behavior,” he said. “And that’s the problem.”

Another way to put it is that term limits only ensure the rise of a new crop of potential crooks. It also means that proven legislators would be removed.

An example frequently raised is that of Assemblyman Richard N. Gottfried, a Democrat from Manhattan, who has been in office since 1971 and is lauded for his institutional memory as well as his acumen in matters related to health care.

Referring to Killian as “my opponent,” Latimer answered her call for term limits in a recent Facebook post. He wrote that corruption in Albany stemmed mainly from power and money being concentrated in a few hands, i.e. scoundrels like Silver and Skelos.

“Shutting off the spigot of such money is necessary it you want to reduce corruption,” he said.

Latimer suggested that voters should decide at the polls who stays in office and who goes.

“I live a modest life and have very modest resources when compared to my neighbors and friends,” he said. “I’ve chosen to work on their behalf for these years rather than accumulate personal wealth.”

He continued, “Others may have misused their public office; I have tried to do my very best for my neighbors…. But let’s not just say anything to get elected.”