Power play bodes ill for bipartisanship in state Legislature
After the 2000 Florida recount, there’s little in the way of post-election shenanigans that can compare — butterfly ballots, hanging chads and a Supreme Court intervention left little to be desired if you get a kick out of electoral screw-ups.
But though we can’t top the Sunshine State, it doesn’t mean that the current squabble over Senate control in Albany isn’t of consequence. The uncertainty initially involved an undecided race between George Amedore and Cecilia Tkaczyk for the 46th Senate District: Whichever party won that race would win control of the chamber.
At least that was the case until Tuesday, because it seems that regardless of the outcome in the Amedore-Tkaczyk race, intra-Senate politics have made the will of the people irrelevant. As this column goes to print, a group of five so-called “Independent Democrats” has aligned with the Republican leadership. This will mean Republicans will hold on to the Senate, despite losing a majority of races statewide.
Unlike in the 2009 Senate coup involving two later-expelled state senators and a month of hilarity, it’s not outright personal survival at stake or naked corruption this time around. Yet there’s still a power play going on here, and it’s being dressed up as bipartisanship.
On its face, the goal that “Independent Democrats” are pushing is a noble one: having independent thinkers in Albany. They’re right on that. We should work with the other side, not grind them into the ground. Democracy needs to be healthy from the electorate all the way up to the elected.
But that health doesn’t start with back-room bartering for control of the Senate. And a Senate conference of 31 Republicans and a handful of resultantly influential “Democrats” doesn’t equal a bipartisan institution. (Fun fact: The Independent Democratic Coalition already received choice committee chairmanships from the Republicans in this session.)
True bipartisanship begins with good-faith comity, not giving the finger to the party that elected you and packing your bags for the other side of the chamber.
Focus on parties
But wait — why all the focus on parties? I know the romantics wish we could just get together and govern without political parties. Should all of our elected officials toe the party line, no matter what?
Of course not. Independent representation is important. Politicians should be expected to compromise, and constantly be finding opportunities to work with the other side. But having two political parties — one of which gets the mandate to lead — doesn’t preclude that from happening. No matter who’s in charge, we expect cooperation and some aisle-crossing to further the people’s business.
In other words, we expect more than a windsock, but we also expect our officials to listen to us. That meeting point in the middle is nebulous, and — like it or not — largely facilitated by the parties we are so pleased to loathe.
What the parties really do is offer us distinct choices on governing philosophies that we — an already-apathetic and ill-informed public — would otherwise have to figure out for ourselves. That kind of self-education sounds great, but it’s hard to imagine anyone having that kind of time or the energy to sift through the names, policy positions and resumes of dozens of strangers running for all the different offices on the ballot.
In short: Self-government is hard, and parties make it easier. In many cases, party ID is all that can be said for sure about largely unknown local politicians we send to do the people’s business. What party you belong to isn’t supposed to be a brand, but it’s the first and sometimes only thing voters know about their representatives. In many cases, it’s the sole basis on which many politicians get their seats. It says something about the kind of representative you’ll be if the first thing you do is renege on this commitment in an effective, yet unspoken exchange for a better seat at the table.
Parties shouldn’t be the sole arbiters of power in Albany, or any democratic system. But neither should we have a system of representation where a couple of “centrist” representatives can wield power like this. Failing systemic reform, we should expect our elected officials to stick by their party, but not hesitate in the least to cooperate with the other side.
By now, it looks like that’s not to be. Rather than a so-called “partisan divide,” we’ll probably begin the next Senate session with back-room politics the public has no say in. What an improvement!
Steve Keller lives in Averill Park and is a regular contributor to the Sunday Opinion section.