by: Chris Shields
Blair Horner has been lobbying in the public interest for
two decades. Whats that in watchdog years?
college students sit around a conference table with their
necks craned to the chalkboard. Their facial expressions,
purposefully neutral and intently focused on the speaker,
might lead one to believe that this moment is either rapturous
or completely overwhelming.
box of Freihofers powdered donuts, a week-old pumpkin
pie and a stack of disposable coffee cups are all clustered
at one end of the table, remnants of a modest gesture from
the staff of the New York Public Interest Research Group
to its new crop of interns. The more ominous welcome giftsNYPIRGs
602-page orientation bindersoccupy the chunks of space
directly in front of them. At the far end of the table,
working the chalkboard, Blair Horner leads the group through
todays lesson: the first of what will be a two-week
crash course in how to be a lobbyist in New York state government.
To the interns benefit, theirs is a seasoned teacher.
is NYPIRG’s legislative director and the mouthpiece for
one the most visible government watchdog groups in Albany.
While NYPIRG lobbies on a variety of topics—environmental,
consumer protection, public health and higher education—Horner
is the group’s “good government” guy. Horner has worked
in Albany for the past 20 years, a consistent critic of
a state government that enhances its reputation as dysfunctional
with each passing session. With an encyclopedic knowledge
of state government, its history and its players, Horner
is a favorite of legislative correspondents throughout the
state. His scathing assessments of state government’s ineptitude
frequently appear in newspapers statewide.
Today Horner is leading the interns through the preliminary
and subject-to-change legislative calendar in what should
be an interesting year in state government. All 212 state
legislators are up for reelection. The state is facing another
budget deficit, estimated to be somewhere between $4 and
$6 billion this year. By court decree, state lawmakers must
begin to look at the way the state provides school funding.
The governor and Legislature are going to be busy.
Horner rattles off the year’s important dates: Gov. George
E. Pataki will give his 10th State of the State address
on Jan. 7 (yesterday). The governor will release his proposed
budget two weeks later. Lawmakers will vacate Albany during
the second week in February, President’s Week, which will
provide the interns a good time to catch up on their schoolwork,
Horner says. Then he comes to April 1.
in one of life’s cruel ironies, the state budget is due
on April 1,” Horner deadpans to the knowing chuckles and
sarcastic fist-pumping of the interns, many of whom probably
still wore diapers that last time New Yorkers received an
on-time budget. “It is my prediction that, for the 20th
straight year, the budget won’t be done on April 1.”
think it is beyond a prediction at this point,” chimes in
one of the interns. A window has presented itself and Horner
takes advantage of it.
never good to sound like you know more than you know,” Horner
says, alluding to the possibility, however unlikely, that
state lawmakers will agree on a budget by April 1. “It’s
best to state exactly what you know, like ‘My prediction
is . . .’ ”
And with that Horner concludes his mini-lesson in Public
Presentation 101. It is not Horner’s, nor NYPIRG’s, style
to talk about state government’s shortcomings as forgone
conclusions. “We’re eternal optimists,” Horner will say
with a widening grin. It is Horner’s tack to criticize the
system and the rules of the game, not its players. The problem
is “three men in a room,” not the three men in the room.
The interns will see some more of this kind of logic and
lobbying later in the day when Horner and two other good
government groups, the League of Women Voters and Common
Cause/NY, present their first press conference of the new
year: a critique of the state of the state’s ethics.
Despite the fact that he will turn 50 later this year, the
Horner of today carries some likeness to the Irish-Catholic
schoolboy he was growing up in North Merrick, Long Island.
Freckles faintly dot his pale skin. He sports a boyish haircut
and simple, functional eyeglasses. Gap-toothed with a slight
overbite, Horner’s smile is a bit reminiscent of Mad
Magazine’s Alfred E. Neuman. Though not quite as zany
as his comic likeness, Horner has pulled some stunts that
can be considered out there by lobbying standards.
In 1997, the state’s lobbying law—enforced by the ironically
titled New York State Temporary Commission on Lobbying—was
set to expire. To call attention to the fact that, yes,
New York still needed a government agency to keep
track of the money and gifts legislators were receiving,
Horner and some other good-government groups held a 1970s-era
Horner donned an afro, bell-bottoms and big sideburns. Another
of his colleagues wore a pregnancy suit, as she was pregnant
when the state first enacted its temporary lobbying law.
The room was decked out with a disco ball, lava lamp and
John Travolta cutout. But the press conference was more
than an excuse to dig into the closet.
Horner and the other good government-types paired the gimmick
with a report pointing out the flaws in the state’s lobbying
laws. It stated that while many states prohibited lawmakers
from accepting gifts, and some states restricted those gifts,
New York, at the time, required only disclosure. As you’d
imagine, the images, and therefore the issue, were widely
covered by the media. State lawmakers later that year decided
not to abolish the lobbying commission, renewing its temporary
status for a little while longer.
was a way to draw attention to the fact that a lot had changed
in the world [but] our lobbying law had not,” Horner says.
“If you’re a nonpartisan not-for-profit that advocates on
controversial issues, you don’t have any money, you don’t
give campaign contributions, you don’t give anybody gifts,
the only way that you can win is to engage the public in
the issue. The public has to be on your side.”
Horner grew up in the politically charged climate of the
late 1960s and early ’70s. He remembers the assassinations
of President John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr.
as eye-opening experiences. The same can be said for knowing
that his friend’s brother was coming home from Vietnam in
a body bag.
Social activism was ubiquitous at the time and, much to
the chagrin of his politically conservative parents, Horner
caught the bug.
Horner and his family held diametrically opposed views on
many of the political issues of the day, namely the Vietnam
War. His father, a teamster shop steward, strongly supported
the war, and Horner did not. Horner characterizes the interactions
with his father at the time as ferocious, without going
into too much detail.
by: Chris Shields
interest in political issues led him to begin graduate work
in urban studies and policy analysis at SUNY Stony Brook
in 1978. It was at Stony Brook that Horner first became
involved with NYPIRG, spending the summer of 1979 going
door-to-door as a canvasser explaining what the group did
and asking for donations. Horner enjoyed the experience
so much that he never returned to school.
Sipping yesterday’s coffee from a brown ceramic mug, Horner
displays some of the youthful idealism that led to his early
involvement with NYPIRG. At one point in the conversation,
a bandana-clad NYPIRG staffer pops her head into Horner’s
dimly lit office to mention that Gov. Pataki has made an
announcement about the manufacture of fire-safe cigarettes
in New York state, a reform that NYPIRG has spent years
Horner’s eyes widen and his brow arches as his head leans
just forward ever so slightly. His mouth hangs loose, forming
“O,” as in “Oh, my God!” Like the 12-year-old who’s just
found out that his favorite baseball player has been traded
to his favorite team, Horner is giddy. If cigarette makers
have to alter the manufacture of cigarettes to be able to
sell them in New York, they may go ahead and change them
for all 50 states. Fire-safe cigarettes, smokes that will
continue to burn only if attended to, may become the standard
around the world.
could have global implications,” Horner says, taking pause
to think about the possibilities.
Just before noon Monday, Horner is pacing the pressroom
in the Legislative Office Building working a cell phone
with one hand and handing out the ethics report with the
other. The legislative correspondents, state reporters from
newspapers and news services across the state, filter into
the pressroom, greeting each other like college students
on the first day back from summer vacation.
A few of the reporters get on the subject of the new security
measures at the L.O.B. requiring everyone, seasoned reporters
and lobbyists alike, to pass through a screening rigmarole
complete with metal detectors and armed state police each
time they enter the building. For these reporters, many
of whom have offices in the Capitol, this will be a major
pain in the ass.
the need for such security?” one reporter wonders aloud.
probably afraid we’ll blow up a senator or two,” another
interjects. “Not that we wouldn’t be better off without
any in mind?” another chimes in.
Horner might not readily admit it, but you get the feeling
that he’d appreciate such dark humor. This is a NYPIRG crowd.
Roughly three dozen television, radio and print reporters
fill the room, and the press conference gets underway at
noon. The NYPIRG interns stand in the back of the room,
forming a cluster behind the reporters. Horner and his partners,
Rachel Leon from Common Cause/NY and Barbara Bartoletti
from the League of Women Voters/NYS, unveil their critique
of the ethics in state government. They’re not painting
a pretty picture.
York state’s ethics are a mess, a shambles,” Horner says.
There is an intensity to his voice. He’s not quite yelling,
but his voice is big, demanding your attention.
Hoping that Gov. Pataki will embrace some of their ideas
in his State of the State address Wednesday, Horner and
colleagues state the case for ethics reform in New York
Operation of the state’s government, the speakers point
out, is regularly referred to as dysfunctional, secretive,
and power-driven by editorial boards, advocates and academics
statewide. Investigative Reporters and Editors, Inc., a
journalism group, recently gave the state’s Freedom of Information
Law a grade of D, one of the lowest scores from the 50 states
rated. The University of California also gave the state
a D for its campaign-finance disclosure laws, ranking New
York 25th out of 50 states. Despite the fact that a state
lawmaker went to jail last session for accepting bribes
to steer government contracts, the Assembly and the Senate
couldn’t agree on lobbying reform.
The advocates lay out their case and briefly discuss the
changes they’d like to see enacted this session: A nonpartisan
budget office, like the one that exists at the federal level,
should be created to give voters—and lawmakers, for that
matter—the straight dope on the state’s finances. The state’s
FOI law should be modernized so that all requestable documents
are available on the Web. Since none currently exists, there
should be some kind of law to regulate lobbying for
state contracts, like the multimillion dollar contract for
electronic voting machines that will be put out to bid over
the next year.
Each member of the group gives a take on the need for ethics
reform, the group answers a few questions, and 25 minutes
later, the reporters are heading back to their respective
newsrooms. Local radio station WAMC ran a brief piece on
the press conference Monday afternoon. On Tuesday, The
New York Times, Rochester’s Democrat and Chronicle,
the Albany Times Union and the Associated Press ran
ethics reform stories.
The day’s conference was just the kind of thing that Sean
McArdle, a 22-year-old senior from SUNY New Paltz and one
of NYPIRG’s new interns, was looking for. He’s come to Albany
to witness advocacy in action.
was getting no practical experience at school,” McArdle
says. “It’s different in the classroom reading about things
and getting to be in the environment and see it happen firsthand.”
Horner notes the importance of the hands-on experience NYPIRG
interns have with state government. “You can’t learn advocacy
out of a book,” he says. And while the interns receive important
practical experience participating in state government,
NYPIRG receives fresh lobbying recruits in return.
the beginning they’re like a golf caddy, but in a couple
of months they’re playing the game,” Horner says. “If I
do it right, by the end of session they will be operating
pretty much autonomously, and that means we have five or
six more lobbyists and we can handle that much more.”
Working with the interns also makes him better at what he
does, Horner says.
always good to force yourself to reexamine how you do things,”
Horner says. “Every year I have a new bunch of people coming
in and I have to teach them the basics, again. It forces
me to think about what I’m doing differently and to analyze
it, and that’s good for me. It reminds me why I do this.”