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Say my name: Andrew Cuomo is greeted by supporters in Rotterdam.

Running on Steam

The candidates for Eliot Spitzer’s job embrace the accomplishments of others

Andrew Cuomo, the frontrunner in the Democratic primary for state attorney general, is a man haunted by the legacies of other men. But Cuomo was not afraid to wrap himself in those legacies last Wednesday, when he took part in a town-hall meeting of attorney general candidates put together by News Channel 9. Cuomo brought out the big guns early, invoking the name of Bill Clinton, the man he says he “made the country better with” while he worked as director of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development; the name of his father, former Gov. Mario Cuomo; and, of course, the name of the man he hopes to replace, Eliot Spitzer.

Cuomo was greeted with embraces from Albany Mayor Jerry Jennings and Albany Police Chief James Tuffey. Schenectady Mayor Brian Stratton was also present.

Cuomo left the stage after his comments, choosing not to listen to his challengers whose comments were broadcast by satellite. He also chose not to sit in a room full of his own supporters.

“I’ve known him for many, many years prior to his public involvement, and I’ve worked with him throughout his tenure at HUD, and he understands what urban America is up against,” said Jennings as he left the meeting with Cuomo.

“We have to change things around, and he has a very clear understanding of the issues we are confronted with,” Jennings added. “We don’t have to educate him.”

Cuomo’s opponents beg to differ.

At a debate at Pace University last Thursday, candidates insinuated that Cuomo does not have enough courtroom experience to be attorney general; he has not prosecuted a case since 1984.

However, Cuomo countered that Spitzer has not spent a day in a courtroom during his eight years as attorney general. He insisted that the job calls for someone who is good at managing lawyers, something he says he did effectively during his tenure at HUD.

But Cuomo’s performance at HUD has drawn some sharp criticism. And he has gained a reputation in some circles as a difficult boss. However, Jennings said that this reputation is unwarranted.

“What I think you’re gonna see—like myself—they criticize us. We micromanage, we want to know what is going on. That is our job. We are the guys out in the front. People want to work with us, and all we ask of them is that they do the right thing. It will come from the top down. He will have to get educated to a lot of the issues that are going on in the attorney general’s office.”

While other attorney general candidates pointed to their experience as qualification during the debate, Cuomo reached out again to someone else’s legacy.

“To me,” he said, “Eliot Spitzer’s legacy is ‘deliver results.’ Don’t just talk about the problem—solve the problem. And that’s what I’ve been trying to do all my life.”

Opponent Mark Green moved to drive a wedge between Cuomo and Spitzer. Green cited a 2004 lawsuit filed by Spitzer against HUD, the organization that Cuomo headed between 1997 and 2001. The lawsuit alleged that HUD did not enforce a law that banned the use of pesticides at public-housing units. Green insists the lawsuit cites violations back to 1996 and covers Cuomo’s time as director. Green declared that, if elected, Cuomo will have to prosecute a case against himself.

Despite critics’ accusations that Cuomo does not have the qualifications for the attorney general slot, many say that no matter who is running, the race will be overshadowed by the legacy of Spitzer’s success.

Critics also say that if the race does come down to Cuomo and Republican frontrunner Jeanine Pirro, both might have a hard time facing their most recent history: Cuomo’s abandoned run for governor in 2000 and Pirro’s recent abandoned campaign against Hillary Clinton.

—David King

What a Week

Phased Return

Remember all that talk of a phased withdrawal from Iraq? Remember how a small number of troops began returning to the states earlier this year? Well it looks like that might have been a mistake. The Marines have begun an involuntary recall of troops who finished out their four-year term of service. The recall will occur in groups of 2,500 Marines at a time. No cap has been given for the total number of troops to be recalled. Officials said that a higher troop presence is needed to manage the escalating violence in Baghdad.

Unwarranted Surveillance

A Detroit judge became the first to rule on the legality of President George Bush’s warrantless surveillance program, striking it down and calling for its immediate halt last week. U.S. District Judge Anna Diggs Taylor ruled that the program, hailed by the White House as necessary to fight terrorism, violates constitutional guarantees to free speech and privacy, as well as the separation of powers. The Bush administration said it would ask for a stay while it appeals the decision.

Cluster Bombs Don’t Do Cease-Fires

Last week, the United Nations reported that Israel dropped cluster bombs on more than 170 villages in southern Lebanon. Since the Aug. 14 truce between Israel and Hezbollah that ended the bombing of Lebanon, eight people had allegedly died from contact with these bombs. And nearly 25 have been wounded. The small, cylindrical bombs blend in with rocks and therefore are easy to step on and detonate. Tekimiti Gilbert, operations chief of the U.N. Mine Action Coordination Centre in Lebanon, accused Israel of deliberately dropping the bombs in populated areas, in violation of international law.

Evolving Backward

In a five-part series, the Los Angeles Times has taken a look at the stress humans have placed on the oceans. Quite disturbing, the paper reports that there has been a change to the basic chemistry of the ocean. According to Jeremy B.C. Jackson, a marine ecologist and paleontologist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego, “We’re pushing the oceans back to the dawn of evolution, a half-billion years ago when the oceans were ruled by jellyfish and bacteria.” This is bad news for the more advanced forms of sea life, such as fish and marine mammals, who can’t survive in the ancient conditions.

Photo: Joe Putrock

Universal Disgust

Pataki vetoes a bill that would have protected consumers from aggressive rate hikes on their credit cards

Last week, Gov. George Pataki vetoed a bill that would have made it il legal for credit-card companies to raise interest rates based on cardholders’ other financial activity. The bill enjoyed nearly universal support from both Republicans and Democrats in the state Legislature and was heralded by experts and consumer-rights groups as a common-sense protection. So why did Pataki veto the bill?

According to a statement from Pataki’s office, the bill was too vague. But the bill’s sponsor, Assemblyman Peter M. Rivera (D-Bronx), and his staffers argue that the outgoing governor had an ulterior motive.

“We know for a fact the bank lobby is the largest contributor to the Bush-Cheney campaign,” said Rivera staffer Guillermo Martinez. “They beat out every other interest group in the country in terms of donations.”

“We know Pataki has his eyes, as far-fetched as it is, at being the president of the United States,” Martinez continued, “and he would need to follow the model. He has to appeal to the right wing and be very pro-business. That would fit that model. There were millions of possible dollars to his campaign at stake. It was the factor.”

“Universal default” is the term used to describe credit-card companies’ practice of raising your interest rate when you incur more debt or don’t pay another bill. The companies say they measure the risk of cardholders by monitoring how they manage the rest of their credit. If a cardholder misses a payment on any bill, they are then considered higher-risk, and the issuing bank will raise the interest rate on their credit card. Not all credit companies use this practice, but those that do usually have this measure included in the small print of the cardholder’s contract.

The practice is ridiculous, said Linda Sherry of Consumer Action, because it hurts the companies as well as the consumer.

“They say it is ‘risk management,’ but it’s making the consumer much more risky,” she said. It becomes less likely someone will be able to make all their payments on time if their interest rates keep getting jacked up.

She also pointed out that it is not an obscure practice that affects only a fraction of consumers. “We hear from many, many people about this. This is not rarely heard of. I was looking through complaints in our database—some poor guy had a 44-percent interest rate.”

Martinez said the practice “is an outrageous intrusion into personal, private matters. We wouldn’t allow people to do this to us, but we’re allowing business to.”

There is more at stake, however, than the financial well-being of New Yorkers.

Martinez and Sherry both said that the bill would have bolstered states’ rights; New York state would have been able to protect consumers from harmful banking practices and, at the same time, challenge federal authority over interest-rate regulation. This would have been a precedent that Martinez thinks other states would have rallied behind. Martinez said the bill would have likely wound up in the U.S. Supreme Court.

“We are saying we [the states] have the authority over this,” he said. “The federal government is not doing much to protect the consumer. This bill would be the beginning of larger, national debate, and would likely wind up in Supreme Court, where they would rule in favor that this is a state issue. It is state protections for citizens. This is classic American-government stuff.”

But Sherry said the full implications of the bill, which had drawn the ire of national banking interests, made her doubt it would have become law. “It was always a kind of a question if it would fly for national banks. They have been kind of working overtime to protect federal preemption of state laws.”

However, Sherry said she thinks this is the kind of issue a governor would want to take on. “If I was governor, I would want to step out ahead of the country and get ahead of a really egregious anti-consumer practice.”

Martinez said that universal default is a petty practice driven by an industry that actually goes out of its way to abuse consumers. “You don’t use your card, you get a fee. . . . It’s amazing! There are guys that sit there over a keg of beer in someone’s summer home saying, ‘How do we screw them now?’ They can’t come up with enough ideas on how to get the consumer. I can see these guys sitting around laughing about it. They all go skiing in the summer, to the Bahamas in the winter, and, you know, everyone else works for everything they have.”

Martinez said bill supporters plan to ask for an override and hope to see the bill get past the governor in September. He noted that the Assembly has passed the bill three years in a row.

However, if they can’t get the bill through the current governor, Martinez said, he thinks he knows someone who might want to approve it. “I would definitely think, with Attorney General Spitzer’s pro-consumer stand, this is right up his alley. As governor, he would actually make a big splash across the country as the first governor to put this into play, as the first governor who really puts up a wall to protect consumers.”

—David King

Prescription for Controversy

While reports of local pharmacists refusing emergency-contraception refills fan flames, national debate about the drug persists

Allegations of discrimination, breach of professional duty, and unlawfulness surround a report that three pharmacists at stores in Saratoga Springs and Gloversville recently refused to honor refills of emergency-contraception prescriptions. The incidents, which are described in a complaint issued last week by the New York Civil Liberties Union, added more fuel to ongoing debate about the accessibility of EC.

While reports of pharmacists refusing to honor EC prescriptions due to moral or religious objections speckle the national map, the uniqueness of the incidents described in the NYCLU complaint has to do with the nature of the objections.

“This is different because they’re refusing to fill refill doses of emergency contraception,” said Linda Scharf, director of communications for Planned Parenthood Mohawk Hudson. “They’ve filled the first script, but they just objected to the idea that a woman might need EC more than once.”

EC, also known as the morning-after pill, or by the brand name Plan B, prevents pregnancy after unprotected sex or contraceptive failure. It contains the same hormones found in ordinary birth-control pills, but in a concentrated dose. Although the drug can be up to 95 percent effective if taken within 24 hours, its success decreases as time passes. EC cannot terminate an established pregnancy and therefore differs from the abortion pill, RU-486.

Yet, the definitional line between whether EC is contraceptive (preventing conception) or abortifacient (inducing abortion) has been muddled by uncertainty about the method by which the drug prevents pregnancy. Pro-lifers argue that once a sperm and egg unite at conception, a life has been created, and any unnatural interference thereafter constitutes abortion.

Of the three principal explanations about how EC prevents pregnancy, one leaves open the possibility that pregnancy is inhibited after conception. This method involves disruption to the uterus, which prevents a fertilized egg from attaching to the womb.

“Preventing implementation makes it abortifacient,” said Dennis Wolterding, a director of the Capital Region anti- abortion organization Citizens Concerned for Human Life.

This method also is the most improbable explanation about EC’s function, according to Claudina Owen, a family nurse practitioner at Planned Parenthood of Saratoga Springs and one of three complainants in the NYCLU case.

“The most likely way that emergency contraception works is by delaying ovulation,” Owen said. “There’s always out there this question of the possibility that there’s disruption of the uterine lining that makes it impossible for a fertilized egg to implant, but it’s not likely that that’s what’s happening. We’re not sure, but we’re pretty sure that it’s delaying ovulation.”

If a woman already had ovulated, she probably would become pregnant, Owen said. That is, unless EC were taken soon enough to thicken the cervical mucus and block sperm from reaching the egg, preventing conception and thereby also constituting contraception.

No matter the odds, the chance that EC might inhibit pregnancy after contraception is enough for anti-abortion organizations to rally against the drug and declare it a form of abortion. It’s this definition, said Wolterding, that negates NYCLU allegations that pharmacists named in the complaint violated state pharmacy laws, regulations and professional guidelines. Such claims, he said, are trumped by a legal protection allowing for their refusal.

A New York Civil Rights Law provision allows persons to object to performing or assisting in abortions when contrary to their moral beliefs. The law also requires employees to provide their employers with written documentation of their refusal prior to the objection. It is unknown whether the three pharmacists named in the complaint had submitted such a refusal.

This law was tested in court during the late ’90s when two Albany Medical Center nurses, with help from CCHL, sued the hospital for discriminating against them when they refused to participate in abortions. The decision solidified the right of employees to refuse to assist in abortions and, according to Wolterding, extends to pharmacists who object to filling EC prescriptions.

“When the pharmacists say that because these are abortifacient they’re not going to fill a refill because they don’t want to perform or assist in an abortion, we believe they are on the strongest legal ground,” he said. “This may have to be tested in the courts again, but we stand ready to help them test it.”

New York is among a majority of states in which a prescription is required in order to obtain EC from a pharmacy. However, the frequency of pharmacists refusing to fill EC prescriptions and the lack of consistent pharmacy policies has created a situation that falls short of guaranteeing those prescriptions will be honored.

“It’s pretty common,” Owen said of refusals to fill EC. “We have certain drugstores that we don’t deal with at all because we know there’s a pharmacist there that won’t fill our prescription if we call it in.”

Even more frustrating to the professionals who prescribe EC is scientific evidence that they say demonstrates EC is safe to provide without their signature.

“There’s no reason [to require a prescription],” said Marc Heller, medical director of Planned Parenthood Mohawk Hudson, who also is named as a complainant in the NYCLUS case. “I think it should be available as possible. There are no medical risks. It should be available to every sexually active woman, if they want it.”

New York state legislators made an effort toward achieving that in 2005, when a bipartisan bill designed to decrease the obstacles to obtaining EC passed both houses. Proposed as a means by which to minimize the number of unintended pregnancies in the state, the measure was vetoed by Gov. George Pataki in August 2005.

Had Pataki signed the legislation, the new law would have followed the actions taken in at least eight other states. The New York bill would have allowed pharmacists and registered nurses to dispense EC through non-patient-specific prescriptions, increasing access by abolishing the need for women to first visit a doctor or clinic.

In his veto message, Pataki noted that the bill would have made EC available to minors as a reason for vetoing the measure.

Age has proved to be a sticky wicket at the federal level as well. In 2003, the FDA agreed to review an application from Barr Pharmaceuticals for nonprescription sale of the EC brand Plan B. Since then, the only decision FDA officials have made has been to not decide, as they pushed back self-declared deadlines for a verdict.

At the end of July, the FDA announced it would again review the request, this time insisting nonprescription sales be limited to women 18 and older. A decision is expected soon.

While the country awaits FDA clarification, states continue to debate access to EC. During the 2005-06 Legislative session, New York representatives again approached the EC question, pushing a revised bill through the Assembly. Since February, the legislation has been sitting in the Senate’s higher education committee.

—Nicole Klaas

Loose Ends

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