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Money in the 20th

A postmortem on a congressional race reveals that the Republican’s campaign arsenal was fully stocked

Democrat Scott Murphy knew the mid-September poll that showed him 17 points ahead of Republican opponent Chris Gibson in New York’s 20th District congressional race was only a mirage. “We had a double-digit lead when no one knew my opponent,” said Murphy after his concession speech on Election Day. “We always knew this would be a close election.”

Actually, Gibson won with a comfortable 10-percent lead over Murphy—too big a margin to be called close. How did a relatively unknown contender gain enough momentum inside of six weeks to capture a decisive victory?

Historically a Republican district, the 20th has 41 percent Republican enrollment and 27 Democratic. Murphy’s predecessor, now-Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, was the first Democrat to be elected to the 20th in recent memory. Murphy won her seat against Republican Jim Tedisco in a special election in 2009 after she vacated it to fill Hillary Clinton’s empty U.S. Senate seat. Tedisco was faulted at the time for running a flawed campaign.

However, Murphy faced a palpable anti-incumbent sentiment in his bid for reelection. While most Democrats running for statewide office went largely unscathed in this regard, Murphy was not so lucky.

“It was difficult to believe until you understood that in the special election there was a number of Republicans that had voted for him and they had obviously deserted him,” said Thilo Ullman, chairman of the Saratoga County Democrats. Ullman said Republican strategists exploited key weaknesses in Murphy’s position. He was a Democrat serving in a Republican district who voted for President Obama’s health-care bill that was unpopular even among some of his peers. Ullman said Murphy’s stance on health care was enough to pull his Republican supporters back to their side of the aisle.

Gibson also had considerable financial backing from the Republican Congressional Committee and associated Republican PACs, including Karl Rove’s American Crossroads and the 60 Plus Association. Together these three PACs spent $1.74 million on Gibson’s campaign.

In September, Salon.com reported that Rove’s American Crossroads PAC is largely funded by billionaires. Ninety-one percent of the $2.6 million raised by American Crossroads in August was gifted by just three people. Prior to August, they had raised $4.7 million, of which 97 percent was donated by four billionaires with ties to various business sectors including the oil and gas industries. Overall, American Crossroads has spent $38 million ($14 million shy of their pledge) on the 2010 midterm elections, all of it going to benefit Republican candidates. American Crossroads gave $447,366 to Gibson’s campaign.

The 60 Plus Organization’s website claims to be a nonpartisan PAC aimed at looking out for seniors’ interests on multiple fronts including health care and social security. However, 100 percent of the $7 million the PAC spent in the 2010 midterm elections went to benefit Republican candidates. The 60 Plus Association seeks to repeal health care and is a member of the Cooler Heads Initiative, a subgroup of the Competitive Enterprise Institute—a Washington-based think tank that opposes climate-change legislation and is funded in part by companies such as Exxon Mobil and Pfizer. The 60 Plus Organization gave $516,437 to Gibson’s campaign.

“The Republicans, very astutely, reserved their main effort for the last few weeks of the campaign,” said Chairman Ullman. “They put the whole machine in gear.” Ullman said that Gibson will toe the Republican line all the way, attempting to repeal health-care reform and extend tax cuts to the wealthy. He noted the recent Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission that enabled corporations and unions to donate unlimited sums to PACs who then funnel the money to favored candidates. The ad blitz seen by the Gibson campaign at the end of the 20th race was one case of this decision being played out on the electoral stage, he said. “The barrage of outside paid advertising was an absolute tsunami,” said Ullman. “There was no way any reasonable message could come out of that enormous barrage of ads.”

Indeed, another Siena poll conducted six weeks after the one giving Murphy a 17-point lead showed Murphy trailing Gibson by nine points. “Certainly I’m surprised at the size of the swing,” said Siena pollster Steven Greenberg. However, Greenberg does not attribute Gibson’s win solely to the financial clout of his backers. “There was a very vigorous, active campaign on both sides of the aisle,” said Greenberg. Murphy did, however, face more attack ads than any other member of Congress in this election.

“That’s what campaigns are all about, educating voters,” said Greenberg. “At the start of the campaign Gibson was largely unknown to the majority of voters in the 20th Congressional District and a lot . . . of money was spent on both sides.”

WAMC host and political pundit Alan Chartock had a similar view. He wrote in an e-mail that, while money helps, it didn’t buy the election for either candidate. Quoting the timeworn adage that ties successful politicians to their constituent’s concerns, Chartock concluded that “all politics are local.”

—Daniel Fitzsimmons


Dangerous Environment

The firing of the state DEC commissioner and the large cuts to the department will soon be under review

Assemblyman Robert K. Sweeney, chair of the Committee on Environmental Conservation, is mad as hell and he isn’t going to take it anymore. At least that was the message he appeared to convey in a press release titled “The Mugging of Mother Nature,” issued in regard to the firing of New York State Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Pete Grannis. Last month, a memo written by Grannis about how layoffs would cripple his department was released to the press.

In the release, Sweeney stated, “Governor Paterson may think that by firing Pete he can silence criticism from those who care about our natural resources. We will not be silent at a time when the DEC is in danger of losing its ability to protect our environment. This administration fired him for speaking the truth . . .”

Sweeney has scheduled legislative hearings for Nov. 18, “to review the DEC’s implementation of the State Budget, staffing levels, and the impacts on State environmental programs.” But Assembly Jack McEneny said that it was firing Grannis that initiated these hearings.

“Grannis is one of many very good commissioners in this state over the years,” McEneny said. Along with Grannis, McEneny talked about Office of General Services Commissioner John Egan and New York State Parks Commissioner Carol Ash, who both took early retirement packages. “While they made no statement,” McEneny said, “they took it at a time when the governor was saying ‘It isn’t enough. Fire two thousand more and make sure it’s done by the first of the year.’”

McEneny said those who chose the retirement package may have been quietly saying, “‘Do it yourself. I’m not going to do anymore of your dirty work. I’m not going to undermine my department.’ I think Pete, whether he deliberately leaked a memo or should have watched the memo, I think Pete had a lot of mixed emotions about how far do I go before I’m betraying my own mission?”

“[Grannis] wasn’t dismissed because a memo was leaked,” said Paterson spokesman Morgan Hook. “He was dismissed for insubordination and poor job performance.”

According to Hook, the layoffs are going to be across the board as a direct result of a budget deficit. “I will say, right now, that the state is facing an unprecedented fiscal crisis.” Hook said the current budget year has a $315-million deficit, and that the governor asked his commissioners to identify the essential services in their agencies and to implement the budget cuts he has asked for. But according to Aaron Mair, environmental-justice chair of the Sierra Club’s Hudson Mohawk Group, there are inconsistencies.

“I find it very curious too, that on one level they say insubordination because a memo is leaked to the press, but when the information in internal file records by the boxload were leaked to the press about Ward Stone and his investigation of Lafarge Cement, the commissioner wasn’t fired then, nor was any other employee fired.” Mair said he found the firing dubious and suspicious. “When it came to taking him out, there was no investigation of the process and the state laws that were violated then. So the firing is not only untimely, but it also smacks of gross inconsistency.”

Hearings are set to begin at 10 AM on Nov. 18 in Hamilton Hearing Room B, on the second floor of the Legislative Office Building. Assemblyman Sweeney will have his opportunity to see that no one “suffers for speaking the truth.”

—W. T. Eckert


Sticks and Stones

Albany County Legislature outlaws online bullying

It used to be they’d just steal your lunch money or kick sand in your face. Now, they bully you on the Internet—but can they be held accountable by law?

On Nov. 8, the Albany County Legislature passed a law that criminalizes cyberbullying and other electronic harassment. Violators of this misdemeanor face fines of up to $1,000 and jail terms of up to one year.

“Law enforcement needs to have all the tools available at their disposal to protect kids,” said deputy majority leader Shawn Morse, one of the law’s sponsors. “Parents from school districts have called me with horror stories of what’s taken place. One guy called me about a girl who’s been in a broom closet for a month because of these cyber bullying issues.”

The girl hid in her suburban school rather than face her peers, Morse said afterward. She’d come home crying daily because of humiliating things people wrote about her on social network platforms, he said.

“I call them cyber predators,” he said. “There are people actually killing themselves because of this malicious, slanderous, bullying activity. When I was a kid, if you bullied somebody, you had a fight on the playground and you moved on. How do you run from something that’s been before one million eyes?”

Leia Murphy thought about suicide when it happened to her, but she didn’t go through with it.

“I almost killed myself several times,” the teenager said. “I felt alone. I felt threatened. There was nothing I could do.”

Murphy still gets weepy telling her story. As an eighth grader, she was cyberbullied so badly, she had to transfer schools and change all her electronic passwords. She was living in Castleton at the time, attending Maple Hill Middle School in the Schodack Central School District.

“My friend’s friend turned my friends against me,” she recalled. “I’m not exactly sure why they chose me to pick on. I never did anything to them. I did sometimes hang out with the popular crowd. My mom said maybe they felt threatened by me. They had their own little posse. They didn’t always get along with the popular people.”

Rumors started spreading about Murphy that had to do with sex and smoking.

“Someone put my face on a picture of a nude woman, showed everybody in school and claimed that it was me,” she remembered. “They brought the laptop into school in the girls’ bathroom. One girl was holding the laptop and saying, ‘Hey guys—look at this.’ ”

That wasn’t all. Somebody also hacked their way into her e-mails and accessed her Facebook page.

“They started writing things on my Facebook walls—things that I really do not want to repeat because they’re really bad,” she said. “They also started signing me up for porn sites. They were e-mailing me constantly.”

There was nowhere she could go to get away from it, nowhere that she felt safe. Now in 10th grade, Leia has a different outlook. Several months ago, she moved far from the Capital Region.

“I’m completely away from those people now and they’re not even included in my life anymore,” she said. “I still occasionally get pornographic e-mails here and there. It’s just a remnant of the horrors that happened to me in the past.”

To anyone going through an ordeal like hers, she says, “Things will get better; your life will get better. There are people you can trust. You just have to figure out who those people are.”

Murphy is not alone. In a recent poll, 42 percent of children in fourth through eighth grade reported being bullied online, according to Albany County.

More than 20 percent of 2,000 children interviewed said that they had considered suicide because of cyberbullying, while 17 actually attempted it, according to cyberbullying.com.

This autumn, the issue gained nationwide attention when a gay Rutgers University undergraduate jumped to his death from the George Washington Bridge after other students posted compromising pictures of him online.

Several states have enacted laws that make cyberbullying a crime, but not New York.

“I was convinced after talking to schools, parents and kids that there was nothing available for them to help stop this process from taking place,” said Morse. “I’ve watched from the sidelines as kids ridiculed other kids with terrible things. They told me about how they and their friends felt. Sometimes the threat of a consequence is enough to make somebody rethink doing something.”

Morse cosponsored the cyberbullying bill with fellow legislators Brian Scavo and Daniel McCoy. They introduced it on July 12. When the Legislature considered it again on Oct. 12, some lawmakers were hot to pass it. But Philip Steck questioned whether it would hold up against a constitutional challenge.

“Some of the language is very vague,” the legislator objected. “It could be misconstrued as a violation of free speech. People who are prosecuted could be forced to spend large sums of money and the charges ultimately get dismissed on First Amendment grounds.

“One person’s insult is not always another person’s insult,” he said. “The best thing to do is send it back to the law committee. It should be revised so it doesn’t run into areas that are protected under the First Amendment.”

Some legislators wanted to go through with the law as it stood.

“I’ve got no problem supporting this tonight,” Mary Lou B. Connolly said. “I rise in support for it and commend Legislator Scavo for having the foresight to come forward with such legislation.”

“If my memory serves me correctly, we have passed unconstitutional laws here,” Legislator Alexander Gordon said.

“One of which cost the county two grand in attorney’s fees,” Steck rejoined.

Legislator Patrice Lockart was among those who preferred to tweak the law to make it more airtight.

“I would like to see this go back to the law committee and have this truly vetted out,” Lockart said. “If we’re going to do this, we need to do this right, so that it’s effective.”

In the end, the Legislature sent it back into committee.

“We’re going to tighten up the law and make sure no frivolous actions come forth,” said Morse.

On Monday, the Legislature approved the reworded version.

—Laurie Lynn Fischer



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