Political Shorts

1. SAFE ACT: Not Dead

Earlier this week, the Federal Appeals Court for the 2nd Circuit upheld most of New York’s and Connecticut’s firearms statutes passed in the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre. Anti-gun control groups brought suit challenging them, and they now plan to appeal this partial defeat to the Supreme Court.

One might ask, what part of “shall not be infringed” does the 2nd Circuit not understand?

The court found that banning assault weapons and large-capacity magazines comports with the “important — indeed, compelling — state interest in controlling crime.” It continued,

“When used, these weapons tend to result in more numerous wounds, more serious wounds, and more victims. These weapons are disproportionately used in crime, and particularly in criminal mass shootings,” according to the ruling written by Circuit Judge Jose A. Cabranes. “They are also disproportionately used to kill law enforcement officers.”

The three-judge panel noted that the Newtown, Connecticut, shooting in December 2012 occurred when 154 rounds were fired in less than five minutes, killing 20 first-graders and six educators and renewing a nationwide discussion on the role of guns in America and how to diminish the threat of large-scale shootings.

The court upheld a lower court’s ruling striking down the 7-round limit in 10-round magazines. The SAFE Act contains a severability clause, so if any portion of it is stricken down by a court, the remainder survives and remains in effect. The list of SAFE Act provisions is broken down here. Its purpose is to avoid and prevent mass shootings such as the one at Sandy Hook elementary where a lone terrorist shot and killed twenty little kids within seconds. It does this by limiting the types of weapons that can be bought and possessed, requires registration of some, mandates that mental health professionals report to authorities if they believe a patient might be planning to commit a violent crime, and requires background checks for all firearms and ammunition purchases. From the Buffalo News,

The court rejected the arguments by the plaintiffs – which included the New York State Rifle and Pistol Association, the Sportsmen’s Association for Firearms Education and other groups, businesses and individual gun owners – that the law “will primarily disarm law-abiding citizens and will thus impair the very public safety objectives they were designed to achieve.’’ The court said there is a “dearth of evidence that law-abiding citizens typically use these weapons for self-defense” and that the state tailored the two key components of the law “to address these particular hazard weapons” that it said has a higher chance when used to inflict more numerous and serious wounds to more people than other weapons.

The court said there are still “numerous alternatives” for people to purchase weapons with magazines capable of holding up to 10 rounds and to use them for self-defense. “The burden imposed by the challenged legislation is real, but it is not severe,” the court ruled.

While the Supreme Court in DC v. Heller affirmed an individual right to bear arms, (thus jettisoning the “well-regulated militia” language in the 2nd Amendment), the decision clarified that, like other rights, the right to bear arms is by no means absolute.

Although we do not undertake an exhaustive historical analysis today of the full scope of the Second Amendment, nothing in our opinion should be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms

The right to bear arms is further limited to weapons, “in common use at the time”. Heller stands for the principle that people can own weapons for personal protection in the home, and since handguns are in “common use”, they cannot be banned altogether. On the other hand, military grade weaponry such as machine guns, tanks, RPGs, etc., can be, should be, and are banned from personal possession and use. The 2nd Amendment isn’t an absolute and unlimited right, just like the right to free speech doesn’t protect libel and the right to free exercise of religion doesn’t protect Rastafarian pot use.

2. All Quiet on the Preetsmas Front?

The investigation into campaign finance illegality that led to the May 28th raids of three prominent political operatives is still very much alive, despite the expiration of the statute of limitations for any misdemeanors. Rumor has it that state and federal investigators are excitedly trying to wrest a Pigeon associate from being represented by a private lawyer, and to convince him instead to take on a public defender and turn state’s evidence against his (former?) associates. This person knows where a lot – if not all – of the figurative bodies are buried, so if this succeeds, it would be huge. Law enforcement has to prove that these guys didn’t simply accidentally forget to make necessary election disclosures in the proper way, but that they knew exactly what they were doing, and that it was part of a continuing, chronic scheme to trick and defraud opponents and the public at large. It’s not over yet.

3. Vice President Biden

The Vice President announced that he would not be running for President in 2016, and gave a heartfelt barn-burner of a speech that left a lot of Democrats wishing that he actually was. Biden is a centrist Democrat who has fought for the beleagured middle class his entire career. Hillary Clinton and the Freedom Caucus and the entire GOP Presidential slate take note:

I believe that we have to end the divisive partisan politics that is ripping this country apart. And I think we can. It’s mean spirited, it’s petty, and it’s gone on for much too long. I don’t believe, like some do, that it’s naive to talk to Republicans. I don’t think we should look at Republicans as our enemies. They are our opposition. They’re not our enemies. And for the sake of the country, we have to work together.

Hillary Clinton is breathing easy, not only because Biden is out, but the Benghazi witch hunt is unraveling hour by hour in advance of her second round of testimony about a tragedy – not a scandal.

4. Canada goes Trudeau

Stephen Harper’s 9 year-long government is over, he will stay as an MP but resign as head of the Conservative Party he helped to re-formulate. As so often happens in left/right North American politics, the grueling 11-week Canadian general election pitted Harper’s fear against the hopeful vision of Liberal Party leader Justin Trudeau. With a clear majority, Trudeau can form a majority government and actually implement the policies for which he advocated. The parliamentary system may not be perfect, but it’s certainly fairer and more efficient in many ways than ours.

5. Wikileaks

Let’s say you believe it’s wrong for the NSA to have the ability to snoop on people’s emails and phone calls and text messages, etc. We can agree that warrantless government searches of the substance of people’s private communications is illegal. So, in what way is it newsworthy or reasonable or fair for Wikileaks to publish the private emails from CIA Director John Brennan’s personal AOL account? No one has found or identified any classified or secret information there – it’s all private stuff, including his application for a security clearance that contains intimate details of his personal life. Wikileaks obtained the information from hackers – criminals – and is simply publishing it all for everyone to see. Wikileaks defenders, defend this. You can’t. It’s a stunt designed to keep these people relevant.

If you want to understand what Wikileaks is, consider this, from John Schindler: Wikileaks is a front for Russian Intelligence. There exists no other reasonable explanation at this point. One need only compare Wikileaks’ published secrets of the Russian Federation vs. the secrets of the United States it has revealed.

An important gap has been filled this week by Julian Assange, who admitted that Snowden going to Moscow was his idea. Ed wanted to head to Latin America, Julian asserted, especially Ecuador, whose London embassy Assange has been hiding out in for years on the lam from rape changes in Sweden. As Assange explained, “He preferred Latin America, but my advice was that he should take asylum in Russia despite the negative PR consequences, because my assessment is that he had a significant risk he could be kidnapped from Latin America on CIA orders. Kidnapped or possibly killed.”

Only in Russia would Ed be safe, Julian counseled, because there he would be protected by Vladimir Putin and his secret services, notably the FSB. One might think that seeking the shelter of the FSB — one of the world’s nastiest secret police forces that spies on millions without warrant and murders opponents freely — might be an odd choice for a “privacy organization.” But Wikileaks is no ordinary NGO.

Now, the private phone numbers and social security numbers of innocent private civilians are being revealed by this phony, hostile “privacy” organization. Its justification for publishing the substance of all of Brennan’s AOL emails is weak, if it exists at all.

Just because you enter public life doesn’t mean that it’s ok for a hostile government’s PR arm to publicize your personal emails. Wikileaks has proven Schindler’s thesis beyond reasonable doubt.

One Buffalo and the Resentment Industry

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When I moved to this area in 2001, WNY was economically and politically in peak “old Buffalo” malaise, treading water while the world largely passed it by. Since then, the region’s journey forward has been pretty epic. Old, intractable problems still persist, but the region has made amazing strides in terms of finding its way into the 21st century.

Except for the Peace Bridge. For some reason, we remain stuck on the question of improving access to our well-to-do neighbor.

At the beginning of the aughts, the city of Buffalo was the region’s financial basket case, lumbering towards an inevitable control board’s oversight while suburbia touted the seemingly miraculous financial stability of then-Erie County Executive Joel Giambra’s county government. He cut taxes and maintained services, even taking over the maintenance of city parks from the hurting city.

The 2005 red/green county budget fiasco blew up the county’s charade, revealing that our perception of its comparative fiscal stability was artifice, built with finite tobacco settlement windfalls. The county soon found itself with its own control board, and a region that really couldn’t afford the hit found itself brought to its knees.

Since then, both the city and county have righted their financial ships and things are looking up. Neither Buffalo nor Erie County hold an exclusive monopoly on prudent governance. The specter of 2005 still looms – no one is eager to repeat it.

Regionalism as an idea was killed due to politics – chauvinism, patronage, and racism. We hit rock bottom with two control boards before we could right ourselves, but the state recognized that a strong region is anchored by a strong city.

Erie County remains a segregated place where poverty and minorities are concentrated within distinct parts of the city of Buffalo. There remains a tendency to focus on what divides us, rather than what unites us. Racism still plays a huge role in our political reality, logic gets turned on its head as well-to-do white people play victim, and craven politicians exploit that.  It’s us vs. them; we pay our taxes while they get their Obamaphones and welfare and Medicaid and HEAP and SNAP and WIC. It’s downstate’s fault, so they demand secession.

Blame the poor, blame the immigrants, blame African-Americans, blame the city they live in. Here in Erie County, the artificial divide between city and suburb is best used to further inflame already toxic arguments about who pays, and where it goes. Proud city folks denounce the suburbs as homogeneous or racist repositories of boredom whose sprawl is killing everyone. While largely apathetic, suburban voters can easily become inflamed by rhetoric about socialism and redistributive financial policies.

It’s easy to hate the people you think are taking advantage of you. It’s easy to hate the “other” – people who don’t look or live like you. The easy way out is secession. Separation. It’s why we’ll never have a unified countywide school district or a metropolitan form of government to replace our current, corrupt menagerie of taxing districts.

I guess it makes political or strategic sense to divide and conquer, but it’s not leadership. Leadership is taking what divides us and finding common ground. Leadership is about listening to the people and implementing policies that will help as many as possible while doing as little harm as necessary. Leadership is rejecting the easy way out or divisive rhetoric and understanding that a County Executive, for instance, must serve the whole county; not just the ones that will vote for him. Leadership means finding solutions to intractable problems and not blaming the victims.

In a way, that’s what’s so brilliant about Ray Walter’s “fair share tax” plan, which would seek to abolish a 1977 agreement on how the 3% permanent county sales tax is shared. Campaign issues don’t get more obscure or wonkier than this. The pitch is that Erie County’s cities receive more in sales tax revenue per capita than the suburbs. The agreement can be modified wth consent of the parties, or canceled unilaterally with one year’s notice. Mark Poloncarz says that subsequent state control board legislation forbids the county from canceling the contract; Walter disagrees.

If you’re most people, you never even heard of this before. You have no idea who’s right. Nobody cares.

The whole thing has to be dumbed down literally to capture anyone’s attention, but suffice it to say that it makes sense that the county’s three cities receive a larger share of the sales tax revenue because the need is greater. If you want to parse and analyze Walter’s plan to redistribute the cities’ share to the suburbs, re-read Bruce Fisher’s piece from mid-September. There, Fisher noted,

…neither the Erie County executive nor the executive plus the legislature has the power to change the sales tax distribution. All the recipients would have to agree. Then the State of New York would have to agree.

During the debate between Poloncarz and Walter, there was some back-and-forth about Walter’s plan, and far from acknowledging that the scheme is anti-city, Walter would have us believe that cities would benefit.  Yet in one breath, Walter argues that the cities are making out like bandits, getting twice per capita what towns get from the 3% sales tax, but in the next, his plan “spreads prosperity to every corner of the county and does not pit communities against one another.”

Re-formulating the sales tax sharing plan isn’t conservatism; figuring out a way to abolish the sales tax altogether would be conservatism. This is just double hypocrisy: 1. Walter says Poloncarz only helps the communities that vote for him, yet Walter’s signature policy propsal does exactly that; and 2. Walter wants to avoid pitting suburb vs. city by robbing the cities to throw more cash at the suburbs. That’s not going to work. It will accomplish the opposite, and he’s stoking these divisions.

Put it this way: if Walter’s tax plan was fair, the mayors of the three Erie County cities would have lined up to support it. Their silence and absence is deafening. When I asked a Walter partisan on Twitter about this, here is the response:

Ultimatum. Hostage-taking. How does that meet the goal of “not pit[ting] communities against one another”, as Walter claims? It doesn’t. It’s a noxious idea borne out of a base desire to exploit suburban prejudices and anxieties; to punish the “takers”, who are the most vulnerable and needy in our shared community.

A conservative way to tackle tax equity and poverty and lifting all boats probably exists, but you won’t get it from this Walter campaign. This is the stuff that fuels the local suburban talk radio resentment industry. Setting up a re-do of Empire Zones to spur investment in blighted communities isn’t the problem – access to jobs and credit are the root problems.

By the time the debate was over, the two campaigns’ themes had become quite clear, and the difference between them couldn’t be more stark. Poloncarz was advocating for One Buffalo – the notion that we’re all in this together; that a strong city helps the whole region, and vice-versa. That we can do great things when we work together towards a common goal of making Erie County a better place to live and work. In the last 15 years, we’ve made incredible strides towards that goal – progress that would have seemed unthinkable to you in 2001.

On the other hand, we had a campaign that threatens the cities with ultimata over dramatically reducing their share of the sales tax despite the need for that revenue. Walter’s campaign wants no part of “One Buffalo”, instead very clearly delineating a pure vision of suburban “real” Buffalo versus the crime, blight, and poverty of the inner city. The aspiration isn’t unity, but division. It’s not too dissimilar from how, in the aughts, the suburbs condescended to poor, beleagured Buffalo, while burning through budget-balancing tobacco settlement one-shots.

We can do better in this community than to pit white against black, rich against poor, city against suburb. WNY’s resentment industry is perhaps bigger even than the Medical Campus and SolarCity combined. It’s time it shrank.

The Republicans Push-Poll

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Households throughout western New York have received calls from area code 315 purporting to be an opinion poll from an organization that has “Liberty” in its name. The first question had to do with whom you would vote for if the Presidential election was held today: Marco Rubio or Hillary Clinton?

An easy way to identify your voter, I suppose, and the choice of Rubio over, say, Trump, is notable.

A push poll is defined as “is an interactive marketing technique, most commonly employed during political campaigning, in which an individual or organization attempts to influence or alter the view of voters under the guise of conducting a poll.” In other words, it’s a campaign advertisement masquerading as an opinion poll.

It would appear that desperate times call for desperate measures.

Opinion polling is a valuable tool for campaigns, politicians, and the general electorate. It’s a tough and competitive business that oftentimes comes under exquisite scrutiny and partisan condemnation. Push-polling, on the other hand, is little more than propaganda; rumor-mongering.

The push-poll that countless Erie County voters have received in recent weeks is Republican propaganda generally, and more specifically a negative campaign tactic against incumbent Democratic County Executive Mark Poloncarz, and in support of his challenger, Republican Assemblyman Ray Walter. Walter denied to me that his campaign had anything to do with it, and Nick Langworthy says his committee knows nothing about it. Some people on Twitter speculate that this might be the work of the Casale Group, a pro-Republican campaign communications firm, which is located in the 315 area code. DIsclosure reports reveal that Walter hasn’t paid Casale yet this cycle, but he’s spent $60,000 on their services in his 2011 Assembly race. but there’s no confirmation yet that it did the call. If Walter and Langworthy are telling the truth, the culprit may be some right-wing political committee; perhaps the state Republican committee.

How do we tell a push poll from a legitimate opinion poll?

For starters, this one was a dead giveaway because it refered to Poloncarz as the “Democrat Party” candidate, rather than “Democratic Party”. After asking me about my Rubio/Clinton preference, it went on to set up a question about Walter’s city vs. suburbs tax proposal by lavishing praise and slathering it with a schmear of undeserved equity before asking me if I agreed.

Here’s how it sounded, using a hypothetical example: “Ray Walter believes that kale is a disgusting, malodorous plant that tastes like poison, causes cancer, and should be eaten by no one. Do you support or oppose the eating of cancer kale? Press 1 for yes, 2 for no.”

Another question asked whether I supported a spending cap for Erie County. Another accused Poloncarz of personally transporting hundreds of Syrian refugees to basically live next door to you, go directly on welfare, and pose a “security threat” by throwing Sharia Law firecrackers at your head or something. It asked if the county does a good job maintaining roads, and whether I support towns getting more sales tax revenue, thus lowering my town taxes. It asked me my opinion of common core and testing of students.

The people or committee(s) behind this push-poll was not disclosed at the end; state law doesn’t require it.

In 2000, John McCain was the victim of vicious push-polls that George W. Bush and Karl Rove set up in South Carolina after McCain shellacked Bush in New Hampshire.

The rumors [about McCain] were spread through push polls—“really not polls” at all, according to Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist Institute for Public Opinion and president of the National Council on Public Polls, but “more of a telemarketing device, where you’re actually calling people in the guise of a poll and you’re not gathering information as much as you’re disseminating it.” A push poll is further defined as solely intended to spread false, damning information; a pollster who asks your opinion about something negative but true in a candidate’s record is not push-polling. Tige Watts, a Columbia consultant and pollster who considers push polls unfair and doesn’t do them, said he understood some of the calls went like this: “They’d ask who you’re voting for. If you said Bush, they’d say, ‘That’s great. Be sure to vote.’ ” You’d hang up thinking it was just a normal get-out-the-vote (G.O.T.V.) call. “But if you said McCain, they’d ask a litany of questions: ‘Would you vote for McCain if you knew … ?’ Basically, they just threw the book at him.” Watts could tell when the calls peaked—about a week before the vote—“because everybody started talking about it. It was like a waterfall.”

Push-polling is cheap and easy to get away with. Watts estimated it runs “about a 10th of the price of a truly scientific” poll—as little as 25 to 30 cents a call—since what the voter says isn’t recorded or tabulated. “I doubt they even train the interviewers,” added Warren Mitofsky of the highly respected Mitofsky International polling firm. “They give them a script and tell them to read it.” Some states have laws regulating push-polling, but to little effect, and the American Association for Public Opinion Research investigates public complaints but can rarely trace who’s behind it. People who get push-polled seldom ask who’s calling or get a call-back number, and, Mitofsky says, “none of the campaigns ever admit” to push-polling.

All of this highlights one of the many problems with New York State election law – that campaign propaganda can be released anonymously. That’s a shame, because people have a right to know who’s trolling them. The fact that I don’t know who was behind that push-poll is a problem, in and of itself.

If we want transparency in campaigns and how they’re financed, we need to not only strictly enforce the laws we already have on the books, but also begin treating the whole issue as a consumer protection issue. If I have a right to know whether something posing as health food is actually packed with high fructose corn syrup, or whether a product actually accomplished the task it’s advertised for, then I deserve to know who is funding campaign propaganda, how that organization got its funding, and from whom and in what amount. Anything less than that serves to protect malfeasors and harm the electorate.

One way to combat poor name recognition and a popular incumbent opponent is to lay the propaganda on thick. Question now is: who’s behind it?

As it turns out, it appears from my social media timelines that people know when they’re being push-polled, and they don’t like it. I sure hope this year’s Erie County Executive campaign can be run on issues rather than negativity and subterfuge.

Cheektowaga: Wrong Democratic Team

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We talked about it during Episode 2 of the Public Record podcast, and I wrote about it here and here.

Sometime during this past summer, a political committee suddenly popped up in Cheektowaga calling itself the “Right Democratic Team.” It filed its first and only financial disclosure on or around September 7th – an 11-day pre-primary report. It appears that the “Right Democratic Team” is a Frank Max-aligned subsidiary of Preetsmas Industries.

Here’s what its reports purport to reveal:

1. The “Right Democratic Team” claims to have been created on August 14, 2015, and Kathleen Hannel is listed as treasurer at a Depew address.

Hannel is a supporter of Supervisor Mary Holtz, has been hired in the past as a seasonal worker in the town clerk’s office, and Holtz co-owns the 16 Brookedge Road property with Hannel, according to the Cheektowaga town assessor:

2. In its September filing, the Right Democratic Team says it took in $50 in unitemized contributions from individuals or partnerships on August 26th. The election law allows contributions of under $100 to be unitemized.

3. The Right Democratic Team says it took in $75 in unitemized corporate contributions on July 30th, two weeks before its creation.

So, according to the “Right Democratic Team”, from a date prior to its creation until the September 7th date of this report, it took in only $125 in unitemized contributions, and spent no money whatsoever.

This, however, is not possible. It is a lie. These people are lying. 

How do we know?

1. Here is a ticket for a picnic fundraiser that the “Right Democratic Team” held at Fontana’s on July 30th.

Unless that event was canceled, this committee (a) made much more than the reported $75 in corporate contributions on July 30th; (b) had expenditures relating to the holding of the picnic event; and (c) it is missing – at the very least – one required financial report, the 32-day pre-primary report.

Although the official address for this shadowy committee is that of Cheektowaga Supervisor Mary Holtz, the “remit checks to” address is that of town councilmember Jerry Kaminski. If you go look at Kaminski’s own filings, he reports a $500 contribution to the Right Democratic Team on July 17, 2015. So, why hasn’t the committee that received it reported that? 

Let’s try something different – a search for all contributions to the “Right Democratic Team” that other committees reported. Here’s the result:

So, add to Councilman Kaminski’s $500 an additional $500 from Supervisor candidate Alice Magierski’s committee, Two $500 listings for “literature” to the Right Democratic Team, and a ticket to the July picnic bought by Republican Family Court candidate Brenda Freedman.

That is $2,035 unaccounted-for dollars that the “Right Democratic Team” received starting in mid-July, through September. It had a legal duty to file a 32-day pre-primary report accounting for these payments, but failed and refused to do so. Even if it claimed mistake or ignorance in doing so then, certainly it had a duty to make these disclosures in its 11-day pre-primary report of September 7th. Its failure and refusal to do so is a blatant violation of not only the letter but the spirit of the election law and its flimsy disclosure requirements.

I don’t understand why a group of experienced political operatives feels the need to create a secret, shadowy little political committee to help the Frank Max-backed candidates get elected. Would they be less effective if they obeyed the law? The law requires that they be transparent and up-front about it, yet they refused and failed to do so. Why lie about it? This isn’t an accident – this is deliberate .

Why do people in Cheektowaga tolerate this sort of thing? When will this illegality be prosecuted? Who will prosecute it?

Schneiderman Tackles Corruption

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Earlier this week Attorney General Eric Schneiderman proposed a sweeping set of reforms to New York’s byzantine and minimally ethical election and campaign finance regulations. What you should pay attention to is this detail: every year, your candidates for state legislature promise to clean up that city’s political cesspool. They punctuate this all of this with caricatures of indicted former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and indicted former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos. They call Skelos a “RINO”, or they promise to free the Assembly from Silver’s corrupt fingers.

When they actually get there, however, none of this happens. A couple of exceptions include current Buffalo Comptroller Mark Schroeder and Assemblyman Mickey Kearns, both of whom refused to back Silver as speaker. When Governor Andrew Cuomo proposed milquetoast pseudoreforms in 2014 and 2015, the few that mattered he negotiated away with the other men in the budget negotiation room. In fact, he went so far as to simply shut down the Moreland Commission he created to examine corruption and make recommendations to end it.

There exists no political will or serious push to undertake the sorts of reforms that Albany needs to become a little less like a dictatorial junta and a little more like a deliberative representative legislative entity.

When your state capital has to rely on the U.S. Attorney who handles a completely different geographical jurisdiction – the Southern District of New York – to prosecute corrupt politicians, you know your problem is more than just trivial.

Attorney General Schneiderman’s proposal, therefore, provides Albany with a way to fix itself before it’s too late. But there’s a weak link here – all of those Albany pols who promised you they’d clean up the state house if you elected them to – what, their 20th term of office – are the ones who would need to propose, debate, and pass any such legislation. It’s not a sexy law that results in any ribbon-cuttings back home, so don’t hold your breath.

Schneiderman outlined his proposal in an op-ed published on May 26th. Noting that 30 state officials and legislators have left office due to criminal or ethical breaches since 2000, he notes that the indictments of Silver and Skelos should serve as an acute wake-up call. Schneiderman notes that he and state Comptroller Tom DiNapoli have prosecuted 60 electeds and their “cronies” in just the past four years – an untenable and frankly outrageous figure. His proposed law, the…

End New York Corruption Now Act — dramatically lowers contribution limits, sharply restricts contributions by lobbyists, closes donation loopholes so big you can drive a Mack truck through them, and provides matching funds for small contributions to offset the power of mega-donors.

It expands the tools available to state prosecutors to investigate and prosecute public corruption.

It ends a system that allows outside employment income for legislators, who should have no “clients” other than the people of New York. In turn, they would be paid like the full-time professionals they are and get a salary increase. I have also proposed a constitutional amendment to change the period between legislative elections from two to four years, to create at least some time for members of the Assembly and Senate to focus on governing first, and politics second.

These are reforms worth considering. Why this, and why now?

“Every year, more or less, for the past five or six years there have been ethics reform packages introduced and passed in Albany,” he said. “And every year or so there’s a press conference and they say, ‘We have made fundamental reforms; we have cleaned this up.’ And then there are more scandals and there’s more outrage, and it’s clear that they didn’t work.”

“I’m done with advocating for incremental reforms — it’s time for us to be bold,” he said.

If you need any more proof, consider that the new Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan recently said that his conference wasn’t going to bother looking into ethics reforms. Shrug.

One of the Schneiderman’s proposed reforms would close what’s called the “LLC loophole”. This legal defect enables politicians to raise massive sums of campaign cash that is difficult, if not impossible, to trace. For donors, it’s an easy way to (a) donate cash without leaving easily identifiable fingerprints; and/or (b) completely bypass and ignore the mandatory maximum donation. It costs just $200 to file and create an LLC, and each LLC can donate as a separate individual. One New York City developer has used the LLC loophole to pour over $13 million into campaign coffers since 2000. Fixing this loophole is simple – in fact, Brooklyn Democrat Dan Squadron proposed a bill to do just that, but it was upstate Republicans in the Senate who effectively killed the effort, including the chair of the Corporations Committee Mike Ranzenhofer (R-East Amherst).

So much for the tired upstate memes about corrupt downstate legislators, right?

Squadron’s bill would

…treat LLCs like corporations or other joint-stock entities, which have $5,000 annual donation limits. Under a current state Board of Elections ruling, each of a developer’s LLCs can give up to $150,000 each annually, the same as a single individual.

The Assembly passed a bill similar to Squadron’s earlier this May, and you can watch Ranzenhofer’s committee stall the Senate version on YouTube.

Schneiderman’s proposal revives Squadron’s effort, and bans legislators from earning outside income, turning them into full-time professional legislators. The current salary approaches $90,000, plus per diems, and as much as we in New York hear from short-sighted tea partiers about how veteran teachers who earn similar amounts are dramatically overpaid, I’m sure we can dispense with any potential complaints about legislators’ earnings. Issues surrounding putside income helped put handcuffs on Sheldon Silver. The Attorney General’s proposed law would go further still, making it a felony to use one’s public power for personal gain. He would abolish “housekeeping accounts” that are ostensibly used for campaign overhead, but have no contribution limits and are ripe for abuse. It would also tighten rules on campaign consultants’ ability to then lobby the people they helped elect.

The glaring thing missing from Schneiderman’s proposals is something that New York needs to very carefully consider – abolition of our corrupt and needless system of “electoral fusion”. New York is one of only eight states that still allow multiple parties to cross-endorse the same candidate for office. It just shouldn’t be – whether we’re talking about the so-called “Independence” fusion Party, whose raison d’etre is patronage, and also to trick unawary voters who intended to register as what New York calls “unenrolled”; the “Conservative” fusion Party, whose platform planks are as set in stone as the party’s options for patronage and advancement, or the “Working Families” Party, which largely promotes the interests of organized labor.

While each fusion party claims that it serves some legitimate electoral purpose, the Independence fusion Party is almost laughably corrupt. It bears repeating that electoral fusion is awful. It is the root of very many evils. It allows candidates and other connected individuals to manipulate elections in order to maximize political power and monetary return through patronage for hangers-on. There are just over 13,000 Erie County voters registered in the Conservative Party – there is no rational way that party’s Erie County committee chairman Ralph Lorigo should wield the power he does. There was no way a barber from Springville – Tony Orsini – should have been a kingmaker. The statewide Independence Party was so angry about being manipulated by Democrats who were using it to trick low-information voters who thought they were voting for a small-i “independent” that they decided to become a wholly owned subsidiary of the state Republican Committee.

Electoral fusion is constantly being manipulated by bad people for bad reasons. It is used as a shield against some fantastical electoral rigor whereby a (R) will never color in the box for a (D) and vice-versa. It is used as a sword against people who don’t play ball with very petty people. Schneiderman’s proposed bill is worth advocating for and supporting. Even piecemeal reform is an improvement over our untenable status quo.

Because it doesn’t matter if you’re a Democrat or a Republican in Albany – that’s not remotely what matters. The only thing that matters is money, power, and control. Who owns or owes whom is the name of the game, whether it’s big donors with multiple LLCs or some microscopically small party line that lends the words “independent” or “conservative” to a candidate’s effort.

We know what the problems are, and we even know how to fix them. It’s time that our Albany pols become a bit more self-aware and actually – for once – think of the greater good.

schneiderman (1)

The Illusion of Albany

3menI’m expounding a bit here on conversations I had Wednesday with people in the know. Recent events in Albany, namely the indictments of former all-powerful Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and the indictment of former also-powerful Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, have given hope to some that U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara is power-washing Albany’s filth and corruption, and that things might actually change.

Others lament just how little clout western New York has in Albany, and that with the exception of fawning attention from a governor who wants to add “turned Buffalo around” to his resume, we get scant attention from our state government, save the odd ribbon-cutting.

As for the former, consider that new speaker Carl Heastie and new senate leader John Flanagan are widely rumored simply to be puppets of their respective predecessors. Consider why it was that, at a secret meeting, Senate Republicans chose a fellow Long Islander to replace Skelos, over a Central New Yorker. Even Cathy Young of Olean backed Flanagan in exchange for a vague guarantee about changing the totemic NY SAFE Act. The Bronx’s Heastie, too, shares a general geographical similarity to his predecessor, Manhattan’s Lower East Side’s Silver. Nothing has changed but the faces and names – it’s all just transparent artifice and fakery.

Indeed, Flanagan has already told people not to expect any more of what Albany desperately needs – ethics reforms. Whatever mild reforms Albany made in recent months are too little, too late as it is, and an effort to close the notorious LLC loophole, which allows individuals to bypass campaign giving maximums, has died in committee.

More to the point, the quashing of Senator Dan Squadron’s bill to close the LLC loophole is courtesy of WNY’s own Senator Mike Ranzenhofer, who killed it in his corporations committee.

As for WNY’s lost clout, consider that any outsider coming here to campaign or raise money must tiptoe through a field of dog crap in order to do so. There is quite literally no way to come into WNY outside the area and not offend one of our many “mean girls” factions. Like middle school, you have to have pre-selected a clique, and be especially aware of whom you meet with first, because presumably all of this minutae matters to someone. When the hopeful pol boards his JetBlue flight the hell out of here, his shoes are encrusted with dog excrement.

There is nothing new under the sun, and there is no reform or significant change coming. Albany will stay corrupt and corruptable until there is some underlying incentive to undertake serious and widespread reforms – structural reforms like abolishing electoral fusion and eliminating the LLC loophole. Western New York will continue to argue amongst itself and fight over scraps, because anything else would seem too effective for our collective taste.

Groanfest ’15

PoloncarzWalter

We thought that Ray Walter taking on Mark Poloncarz would be fun, right? They’re each of them snarky, smart, partisan, and combative. But it’s already become supremely annoying.

Nothing substantive has been debated or discussed yet, and I doubt anything ever will be. Walter can hit Poloncarz on issues at DSS, and Poloncarz can hit Walter for a lack of accomplishments as a minority member of the legislatures he’s been elected to, and they’ll each try to string that out as much as possible. In the end, though, Poloncarz’s tenure has been deliberative, fiscally responsible, intelligent, inclusive, and – above all – looking to the future rather than skulking about the past.

Not to say Ray Walter would make a bad County Executive – just that Poloncarz hasn’t committed any act or omission that would adversely affect his overwhelming re-election.

What’s annoying about it is this: rapid campaign response is important; I get it. You can’t simply let some lie or nonsense stand, hoping it will just go away.

But did we really need a biting rapid response to each candidate’s campaign kickoff? In terms of setting the tone, it doesn’t bode well.

With Poloncarz’s kickoff, Walter pounced. The County has experienced some very good years lately, so Walter’s third sentence, “Myself, who understands the reality and challenges facing Erie County, its taxpayers and its businesses; and the incumbent who ignores reality and twists numbers for political gain“, is as eye-rollingly overaggressive as it is awkwardly worded. Furthermore, Walter is making an issue of horrible road conditions literally a month after one of the coldest and snowiest winters in WNY history. He is right that the DPW was unable to click its collective heels to fix all the roads instantly.

Likewise, when Walter held his campaign kickoff, during which he had to assail Poloncarz because Walter has little name recognition outside of Amherst, and because Poloncarz is running on a strong record, the Poloncarz camp sent this:

Poloncarz Campaign Counters Republican Claims

ERIE COUNTY, NY – Today, as a Republican announced his candidacy for Erie County Executive, many exaggerations and untruths were stated in an attempt to misrepresent and distort Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz’s proven record of job growth, fiscal discipline and strong leadership for the people of Erie County.

Not as aggressive as Walter’s, but also completely unnecessary.

Mark Poloncarz is proud to run on his record of accomplishments from the past four years, and is looking forward to a fact-based, spirited campaign that leaves aside petty political attacks while focusing on the issues that matter most to the people of Erie County.Poloncarz will detail his accomplishments, the issues that matter to the people of Erie County and his goals for the future when he announces his candidacy for reelection on Tuesday, April 21, 2015.

Then ignore the taunting. We all want a spirited, fact-based campaign, so if your opponent is making stuff up, deal with it with rebuttal, not simply by making the accusation.

This campaign has only just begun, and it’s already cringeworthy. Sometimes I wish political campaigns would tell it like it is, and that every ad was replete with profanity. At least then, this sort of hypersensitive overreaction would be fun.

We’re about 3 days in, and I’m already getting the sense that if one said the sky was blue, the other would blast the media with a press release heavy on insults, light on facts, insisting that the sky was red and anyone suggesting any differently was just repeating right-wing Koch Brothers / left-wing Soros talking points.

Make it stop.

 

Cheektowaga Politics: Making Other Towns Look Good

Political figure denies padding his pension - wivb.com 2015-02-12 06-21-28

Lest anyone think the City of Buffalo or state government in Albany have some sort of monopoly on dirty politics and bad government, Cheektowaga pops up to periodically remind us that stupidity and dysfunction can be found everywhere.

Let’s take former chairman of the Cheektowaga Democratic Committee, and current head of the Cheektowaga “Progressive Democrats” club, Frank Max. Although he’s a bit player in the WNY Progressive Caucus scandal, Max has been at war with whomever has been at the helm of the county Democratic committee for years, and for reasons that no rational person can recall. Max is also the former head of Cheektowaga’s sanitation department, and was unexpectedly ousted as chairman of the Cheektowaga committee this past December.  The newly constituted committee blasted Max’s conduct and handling of committee finances.

In December, Max and his club held a fundraiser. Here’s a somewhat shaky picture of the invitation that was sent out.

I have no idea how the turnout was, or how much money was made.

That’s because Max hasn’t filed any proper disclosure. The “Progressive Democrats” juggernaut boasts a warchest of $2.02, that’s after expenses of $5.00 since the 32 day post-general election disclosure.

Friends of Frank Max” and “Frank Max” both filed statements of no activity.

So, where did the December fundraiser money go?

On another note, at least one irresponsible local website has accused Cheektowaga’s town government of attempting to cover up or silence allegations of monetary irregularities.  On the contrary, town government commissioned a private investigation, and allegedly found that town asphalt millings had allegedly been misappropriated for private use, and that people had improperly been paid for work that wasn’t done. Not uncoincidentally, the highway superintendent is Mark Wegner, who replaced Frank Max as chairman of the town Democratic Committee last year. On Tuesday, the town council voted unanimously to refer the investigation’s findings to Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s office.

It strains credulity to suggest that the town council, Democrats, or Councilwoman Diane Benczkowski are trying to cover up or “suppress” an investigation that the town commissioned and referred to law enforcement. On the contrary, it seems as if they’re taking complaints seriously and letting the professionals handle it, rather than turning the matter into a circus.

If anything is political, it’s Max partisans leaking false information to irresponsible websites. Wegner says it’s a predictable political witch-hunt; Max has it out for Wegner for obvious reasons, but he apparently has beef with Benczkowski because she accused him of falsifying overtime records in an effort to pad his pay and pension.

There’s Petty, Then There’s Small Town Petty

clartownhallIn 2013, Ronald Kucinski, Jr. circulated petitions to run as a Republican for the Clarence Town Board. Apparently, his bid didn’t have the support of the town committee. Kucinski’s petitions were challenged, and thrown out. He was understandably upset about it, and sent a letter to the editor of the Clarence Bee, expressing his displeasure.

So you want to run for office and get into the world of politics? You have ideas, you have guts and the determination?

I gave it a shot only to be defeated by my own party. This is what I found out:

The “good-old-boy network” is alive and well in Clarence. We are fortunate to live in a country where anyone can run for public office. However the political machine here in Clarence does not believe in a Democracy where the residents choose their candidates.

Clarence Republican Committee chair Dan Michnik, incidentally, works at the county Board of Elections. He also picks up a small stipend from the town.

But Kucinski’s wasn’t the only letter the Bee published on the matter.  There was also this one, sent in by Beverly Campochiaro.

How self-serving that a small number representing the Republican Party can dictate whom they want to win, whether or not they are doing what’s right for the town.

This is a democracy, and we are entitled to more. The fact that the Republican Party makes that choice for us is unacceptable.

We had a qualified candidate ready, willing and able to serve the residents of Clarence. But the good ol’ boys were not going to let that happen.

Many residents took a stand regarding the school budget. Maybe it’s time to take a stand regarding our local politicians.

Let’s not look at this upcoming election as party versus party. It’s not about that; it’s the first step to make a change. With each election, we need to get involved and tell our local party leaders enough is enough.

Campochiaro’s letter was arguably stronger than Kucinski’s, and there’s a connection here; Campochiaro happens to be Kucinski’s mother-in-law.

Campochiaro is also a longtime member of the volunteer board of the Clarence Youth Bureau. She helped found it, she’s volunteered for 9 years, she’s a former chairwoman and secretary, and heads up a great speaker’s series. By all accounts, she’s a hard worker, well-liked by the kids and her colleagues, and has never had a problem there.

That is, until her son-in-law tried to run for town office.

The Clarence Town Board is 100% Republican and an all-male revue. At a working session last week, it voted 3 – 2 to not recommend Ms. Campochiaro’s re-appointment to the Clarence Youth Bureau.

Word of this vote got out, and members of the Youth Bureau board and other concerned parties undertook a letter-writing and call-in campaign to change the Town Board’s mind.

It should be noted that the town board maintains a liaison with the Clarence Youth Bureau. Most recently, it was Robert Geiger, who was one of the two “no” votes and who respects Campochiaro’s work. The other “no” vote was from Bernie Kolber, who has strong personal feelings against Campochiaro for her “good old boy” cracks, but nevertheless could not allow those feelings to cloud his judgment or direct his vote. The liaison who served prior to Geiger was Peter DiCostanzo, who was instrumental in this attempt to oust Campochiaro from the Youth Board; a board which, incidentally, already has a vacancy the town can’t fill.

I spoke with Campochiaro earlier this week, and she notes that, once the letter-writing campaign started, and the media began digging, the December 29th vote suddenly became “preliminary”. Councilman Pat Casilio, who voted against Campochiaro’s re-appointment on the 29th told me an email that “no final decision has been made yet”. (Supervisor Hartzell and Councilmember DiCostanzo did not reply to an email sent January 5th asking why they voted against reappointment).

For her part, Campochiaro is aghast over this. She loves volunteering for the Youth Bureau and no one has had the decency to explain to her why it is that her reappointment to the Youth Bureau board, (which already has a vacancy), is being called into question. She says it’s like “defamation of character” to have a sort of scarlet letter around her neck – not convicted or even accused of any malfeasance – yet to be singled out as a disposable troublemaker. There’s not even the typical small town excuse – getting rid of one person to make way for a patronage hack.  After all, the position is unpaid.

Campochiaro believes that this is nothing more than blatant political retribution. She relates a story about a board meeting that was held at the Youth Bureau some time ago, which has 7 student members. There was a discussion held about a speaker who was going to talk about drug abuse among middle school students. Mr. DiCostanzo was the Town Board liaison at the time, and he said, “any kid that carries a backpack is using drugs or selling drugs.”

Nothing was said at the time, but that remark was a shocker. Just about every kid in that school district, after all, carries a backpack, so the comment was either stupid, or a bad joke. Campochiaro later corresponded with DiCostanzo, and chided him for his “inappropriate” remark, reminding him that he’s there to show leadership, to be a role model, and to support the kids and town. She told him that if parents heard what he said, they’d be appalled. DiCostanzo responded angrily – Campochiaro says he “ripped [her] apart in an email”, claiming that it was just a joke. No one found it funny.

Campochiaro contacted Supervisor Hartzell to make an appointment to meet with him about this issue. She soon thought better of it, and figured she’d let it go; she cancelled the appointment. However, Hartzell saw this and called her to find out what the problem was. She told him about DiCostanzo’s remark, and complained that he should be replaced as liaison at the next reorganization. According to Campochiaro, Hartzell was appalled by DiCostanzo’s remark, and at the next reorg, Geiger replaced DiCostanzo as liaison.

In the absence of any other rational explanation, Campochiaro accuses DiCostanzo of exacting his revenge for her son-in-law’s run for office, her letter to the editor critical of the town Republican machine, and for having the Supervisor remove DiCostanzo as Youth Bureau liaison. Incidentally, Hartzell was the third December 29th vote to reject Campochiaro’s reappointment. In the Clarence Bee, Steve Jagord writes,

DiCostanzo denied any personal ill will towards Campochiaro and in an email called into question her personalization of the decision.

“It is not a personal or political thing,” DiCostanzo said. “People who really know me know I don’t let petty politics affect my decision making.”

However, no reason was given for not reappointing Campochiaro. Casilio and Hartzell did not respond to requests for comment in time for this week’s edition.

The Bee also published a strong editorial chiding the Town Board for, in effect, discouraging volunteer participation. The whole thing has a chilling effect.

The Town Board met on Wednesday for its 2015 reorganization meeting. Councilman Geiger was reappointed as liaison to the Youth Bureau. Cooler heads prevailed, and Mrs. Campochiaro was reappointed to the Youth Bureau’s board.

During the allotted period of public comment on the town board’s reorganization agenda, Campochiaro thanked the board for reappointing her, adding that the last week had been a very trying one for her and her family. Addressing DiCostanzo, who couldn’t be bothered to lift his head or look her in the eye, Campochiaro responded to comment to the Bee, claiming that this wasn’t about personality. She said, “you know and I know that it is.” She hoped, however, that they could put this entire episode behind them and continue the good work that the Youth Bureau does for the town and its citizens.

To this day, however, not one of the three “no” votes has explained himself. Campochiaro is logically to conclude that they had allowed personal animus to influence their duties as town trustees. The smallest beam of light can work wonders.

Crappy 2014 Retrospective Post

For some reason, not all of my posts transferred neatly from Artvoice to here. Nevertheless, even though I already wrote that year-end retrospective posts suck, here is my sucky 2014 retrospective.

Tom Bauerle’s episode. Geoff Kelly and I didn’t think the story was newsworthy enough to run with, even though we had enough information to publish something. The Buffalo News ran it, and I questioned why it might be something for public consumption. Its abrupt relegation to “life and arts” seemed like vindication.

Dennis Gabryszak’s toilet video. Ew.

We had to vet a former Buffalo chef’s bullshit.  By way of reminder, his dad’s credentials to tell you the weather are “has looked out the window before”.

Here are some thoughts about how the country has moved away from its roots in the Enlightenment.

Eat chicken wings however the fuck you please, and call them whatever you want.

The NYS Thruway Authority is the worst. It is emblematic of what’s wrong with all NYS Authorities; mired in 50s groupthink, resistant to change, wasteful.

I posted this. It’s still accurate. Today is “elevated”.

WBEN is, generally, the voice of horrible things and people. Not Buffalo. Its operations director went so far as to fantasize about committing acts of physical violence against Hillary Clinton, and cheering street thugs harassing a peaceful protester. It came down to Tim Wenger’s WBEN basically being fascist.

Donn Esmonde is still an ass. Also, horrible.

Clarence resisted an effort to ban or otherwise restrict books on the ELA curriculum. Here’s the list, followed by my interpretation of it.

Clarence School Curriculum Letter March 2014 by Alan Bedenko

The Clarence List by Alan Bedenko

In an astonishing display of self-parody, certain people were offended that Mark Poloncarz ceremoniously “pardoned” a butter lamb.

The dad of my best friend from grade school and college passed away this year, and this was my effort to pay homage to him.

Mark Grisanti so angered the gun-hugging right that they opted instead to elect a pro-union liberal Democrat. Thanks, dummies!

In the meantime, it was time to shame all those slutty sluts with their sex and whatnot.

Carl Paladino – a guy whom I got to meet in person for the first time this year – is also still horrible.

Kathy Weppner on ISIS and Ebola and Islam by Alan Bedenko

Did we ban the Ebola flights yet? We had a horrible outbreak of Obola, for real.

Horrible people made up lies about the local League of Women Voters in order to try desperately to score a political point.

I don’t think building some apartments and other buildings on the Outer Harbor is such an awful idea. Neither would a customs and immigration union / statutory harmonization with Canada.

Local Republicans practically salivated over the prospect of Donald Trump running for governor. Boy, that would have been awesome. Bob McCarthy got to fly in Trump’s jet and likely sharted from excitement. 

Electoral fusion is still corrupting everyone. (Again and again). Demand better from Albany. We deserve it.

Don’t let lunatics define you.

Correcting Weppner by Alan Bedenko

We might be getting some sort of justice, as it seems that AwfulPAC is under state and federal investigation.

What would a 2014 retrospective be without invoking Kathy Weppner, who kept us entertained all season long? Thanks for running, Kathy.

Happy New Year! Nice skating rink and stuff!

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