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Photo by: Chris Shields
Reform Springs Eternal
NYPIRG’s Blair Horner has been lobbying in the public interest for two decades. What’s that in watchdog years?

By Travis Durfee

Five 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.

A box of Freihofer’s 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 gifts—NYPIRG’s 602-page orientation binders—occupy 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 today’s 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.

Horner 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.

“And 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.”

“I 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.

“It’s 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 press conference.

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.

“That 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.

Photo by: Chris Shields

His 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 lobbying for.

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.

“This 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.

“Why the need for such security?” one reporter wonders aloud.

“They’re probably afraid we’ll blow up a senator or two,” another interjects. “Not that we wouldn’t be better off without a few.”

“Got 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.

“New 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 state government:

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.

“I 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.

“In 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.

“It’s 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.”

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