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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.

—Ali Hibbs

Bad Apples?

Two families allege instances of racial profiling at Bowman Orchards

Trips to apple orchards are iconic fall activities. One family’s trip in September, however, did not create memories that will be cherished.

The family, who asked to remain anonymous, brought relatives to Bowman Orchards. After picking apples, they drove to the checkout, where they were accused of stealing. This family, and another in a separate instance, felt they were racially profiled.

“I think we were put in a spotlight because of the way we were dressed,” said a woman from one of the families. She is Pakistani and identifiably Muslim by the headscarf she wears. “There were two cars ahead of us. They didn’t do the same thing (to them).”

The woman and her family felt humiliated, and she sent a complaint via the orchard’s website. She never got a response, she said. Robyn Ringler, owner of Eastline Books in Clifton Park, and also a lawyer, offered to help the family pursue an apology on a more formal level. Ringler hoped that all parties could have a conversation, but in speaking with orchard owner Kevin Bowman by e-mail and phone, she found that would not be possible. The family considered going to the American Civil Liberties Union.

“All I wanted from him was an apology, that it was a mistake,” the woman said. “I don’t care for lawsuits. We all make mistakes, I don’t know whether he did it on purpose, but that’s all I wanted from him. I really want the word to be out, and for other people to understand, it’s not right.”

When asked to comment on the incident, Bowman said he could not discuss the event because the family had spoken of litigation. He also denied that the family had contacted him.

“Normally if someone has an issue, they either would call me or they e-mail me,” Bowman said by phone. “I usually apologize to them if we felt something was wrong, or they apologize to me. . . . As a token of my good faith, I usually send them a gift card or something of that nature if I feel that an employee, or someone has done something wrong. In this case, none of that ever happened.”

Bowman said that every car that comes to the orchard is searched, and there are signs stating this fact, which is also on the picking guide that everyone gets upon entry.

“The only time that a vehicle is searched more than routinely is when we have customers or employees that have seen that vehicle or that person stealing apples,” said Bowman, adding that, nine times out of 10, customers are informing on each other. One or two cars out of the thousand that come through on a weekend day in the fall are stealing, he said.

When asked whether the searches are racially motivated, Bowman said no.

“We have customers from every race, every color, we have friends from every race, friends from every color,” he said. “We have all kinds of people who work for us. We have white people who steal from us. We have black people who steal from us. We have people from every nationality who steal from us. Unfortunately, we live in a fallen world and there’s no one that’s exempt from that.”

The second family who felt they were racially profiled said the orchard was a part of their life, the place where they picked apples in the fall, peaches and nectarines in the summer, and strawberries in the spring.

This family is Guyanese. The woman has been in the United States for 10 years, and her husband has been in the country for 30 years. Both of them are professionals.

In June, they went to Bowman’s to pick strawberries. After paying for the strawberries they picked, they noticed an extra charge on their receipt. When they asked the cashier to explain the charge, the cashier said the $4 was for eating in the field. She said she’d been radioed that the kids in an Indian family were running around and eating strawberries. According to the cashier, the family had been told they should stop, but they hadn’t.

After contesting the fact that their kids had eaten fruit or been reprimanded—the family didn’t point out that whoever had tagged them as Indian was incorrect—they got a refund for the fee. Once home, the woman called the orchard, and asked to register a complaint. She left her number and was never called back. Kevin Bowman said he’d never heard of this incident, and that an extra charge for eating strawberries was ludicrous.

Meanwhile, Ringler has led a community effort to show support for the Islamic community. She and others are organizing a soup drive that capitalizes on the boycott of Campbell’s soups recently initiated by right-wing bloggers. Campbell’s released a line of halal soups in Canada in January, and this month, the food became a political fireball in America. Organizers of the soup drive hope to show that the Islamic community that the local community is not caught up in such bigotry. Eastline Books, Java Jive, and the Regional Food Bank are accepting soup donations.

—Amy Halloran

From the Horses’ Mouths

Here’s what the three contenders in New York’s 46th District state Senate race have to say for themselves

If it were a horse race, Democrat Neil Breslin would be the favorite.

The seven-term New York State Senator seeks two more years in New York’s 46th District. Last week, he went head to head to head with Republican challenger Bob Domenici and Reform Party candidate in their only debate.

In between all the pavement-pounding, the candidates spoke with Metroland about who they are, what they stand for, how they came to run for office and what they hope to accomplish if elected.

The son of an Albany High School teacher, Breslin graduated from the Vincentian Institute. He studied political science at Fordham College and law at the University of Toledo. An attorney since 1971, he was a Bethlehem committeeman before taking the 46th District senate seat from Republican incumbent Mike Hoblock in 1996.

“In the 1990s, I was vice president of a homeless shelter and president of a halfway house for young women,” he recalled. ”We saw Newt Gingrich and the Republicans just tearing programs apart and I thought government was turning its back on the marginalized in our society. It got me all upset. I had the opportunity to run. When I was elected, I was the only senator who had never held a government job. It’s only the last two years that I’ve been in the majority.”

So what has Neil Breslin done for constituents lately?

He backed legislation to reform the life-insurance industry and build the Global Foundries plant in Malta, which is giving local laborers millions of hours of work. Breslin also supported the pilot permit program giving Albany residents preference over others to park in their own neighborhoods.

Breslin cosponsored a bill that would give marriage equality to same sex couples in New York, but the Senate defeated it.

“Even though I’m a Catholic, I’m supposed to represent everyone,” he said. “Both my opponents oppose it.”

Looking to the future, he says, it is vital but not easy to stabilize and lower property taxes. He aims to reduce unfunded state mandates that are passed on to local government. Property taxes could be paid on an income-based scale, he believes.

To get New Yorkers back to work, Breslin voted for legislation that gives tax credits to companies located in the state’s hardest hit economic regions. He supports interest-free or low- interest loans to small businesses and people below the poverty level who want to start cottage industries. He also cosponsored legislation that subsidizes energy costs for companies that create jobs.

Breslin favors public financing of elections and legislative redistricting by independent agents, but he is against term limits.

His opponent, Bob Domenici, promises to limit himself to three terms if elected to the Senate. Domenici believes in political redistricting, as long as it’s done by an independent agency.

He figures he’s walked about 100 miles since he declared his candidacy in early June.

A Capital Region resident since 1996, he considers himself a lifetime Republican and a conservative. Yet, he outspokenly distances himself from the Republican Party. He says he’s his own man. And he says his family is hurting too.

“I’m tired of watching us get crushed by taxes and policies that serve no one but the career politician,” he said. “What’s important right now are the economic issues. It’s more about community than any personal desire for success.”

With a masters degree in public administration, Domenici serves on the South Colonie School Board and the Capital Region Board of Cooperative Educational Services.

He wants to eliminate capital gains taxes for small businesses and lower income taxes and business expenses, such as fees and regulations, health-care and electricity costs.

Initially, Domenici wasn’t interested in seeking public office. When people kept pestering him, he made a decision.

“I’ll run,” he decided. “I’ll run hard. I’m going to run the way I want to run, and I’m totally not interested in the party philosophy. I truly believe that this year, the parties don’t matter. What matters is we have people who want to run for the good of their state.”

Does trying to unseat Breslin make Dominici feel like Don Quixote? His response sounds like a verse from “The Impossible Dream.”

“I pride myself on working hard at never seeing any challenge as insurmountable,” he said. “My whole life, it’s been perseverance, hard work, doing it on my own and never letting anybody tell me I can’t succeed. I’m the son of an immigrant Italian father who didn’t even speak English. I grew up in the streets of Brooklyn. I literally fought my way out of that neighborhood and through a lot of adversity. I joined the United States military. When I left the military, I took $100 and started my company. Now, it’s a $2.5 million company.”

After 22 years in the army, Domenici founded Strategic Response Initiatives, which offers defense technology training.

His son, also a soldier, just returned from Afghanistan.

Questioned about “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” Domenici called it a “waste of policy.” Some of the best soldiers he ever worked with were gay, and he didn’t turn them in, he said.

Asked about abortion, he responded, “I’m Catholic, so I’m anti-abortion, but if it’s rape or incest, I understand a woman has the right to do that. I wouldn’t have wanted my daughter to abort my grandson. She didn’t tell us she was expecting until late in the pregnancy. She’s a single mom.”

Glenmont resident Michael Carey doesn’t believe in abortion under any circumstances.

“I’m pro-life,” he said. “A baby is a baby. Obviously rape and incest is horrible. I wouldn’t wish it on anybody. At the same time, a child has still been conceived.”

A member of the Delmar Full Gospel Evangelical Church, he doesn’t support gay marriage either. “From the scriptures, from the very beginning of time, marriage has always been between a man and a woman,” he said.

Born in Pittsfield, Mass., Carey moved to Bethlehem when he was 5. The 1980 Bethlehem Central High School graduate went to Hudson Valley Community College, then worked in heating, ventilation and air conditioning.

He also has run his own lawn-care and snow-removal businesses and worked as an electrician. Today, he owns a used automobile dealership in Delmar. “I’m not the typical used car salesperson,” he said. “Some of the used car salespeople don’t have the best reputations. I let the vehicle pretty much sell itself. People like me and they come back.”

Carey wasn’t political until the death of his institutionalized autistic son.

“He was severely physically and emotional abused,” Carey said. “He was killed by his caregiver three-and-a-half years ago.”

Since then, Carey and his wife have lobbied to end abuses in the mental-health-care system. Jonathan’s Law, named for their son, gives parents and guardians access to certain investigation records regarding disabled loved ones.

“I’ve done everything imaginable to make it safer,” Carey said. “We’ve gotten eight bills passed. I have the experience that Bob Domenici does not have.”

How does that experience measure up against Breslin’s?

“Neil Breslin has been in there for seven terms,” Carey said. “Our state has been spiraling downward for most of those 14 years. We’re overtaxed. A million people have left our state—a mass exodus. They can’t afford to stay here.”

Carey said he wants to “restore hope” to New Yorkers and help them become involved in reforming our state government.

If elected, he would work on a bipartisan basis, he said.

Carey’s top priorities are “job incentives, tax breaks for small businesses and getting people back to work.” He said he wants to prevent tax increases. He vows to make state government more transparent and rid it of “wasteful spending, mismanagement, fraud and corruption.”

—Laurie Lynn Fischer

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