Government in any state is an easy target for citizen criticism. But in New York, the criticism is justified. Run by a handful of political leaders, deliberations and decisions often made in secret, dominated by money and special-interest influence, New York makes a mockery out of democracy.
This year, in particular, New Yorkers may feel that it makes little difference whom they vote for, particularly in the governor's race. It has been a lackluster campaign, and for this newspaper, the endorsement decision in the governor's race has not been an easy one. Change --- dramatic change --- is clearly needed in Albany, not just in the way state government operates, but also in direction. The Pataki administration --- with unwise tax cuts, a feeble economic-development vision, and a stunning coziness with business interests --- has taken the state down a path from which it will take years to recover.
In theory, Carl McCall could be the change agent. But his weak campaign raises serious doubts that he would be. To the editorial staff of this newspaper, the person whose vision represents the best hope for the state is Green Party candidate Stanley Aronowitz.
Aronowitz, of course, will not be elected. He knows it, and we know it. And we recognize that many readers will consider a vote for Aronowitz a wasted vote. If the race were close, we would endorse McCall, who clearly is a better choice than Pataki. But unless things change dramatically in the next few days, Pataki will defeat McCall soundly.
It is important that voters send a message to leaders of the major parties: this state is on the wrong track. Crucial decision-making is dominated by corporate interests. The gap between rich and poor widens, racial segregation intensifies, needs of urban communities are ignored.
The Upstate economy has been weak for years, and neither major-party candidate has come up with proposals that will change things. We're on the verge of a fiscal crisis, and the major-party candidates act as though it will solve itself. Whoever is governor will have to find a way to balance the budget while protecting New York's most vulnerable citizens and its vital resources.
This year's gubernatorial campaign is essentially over. George Pataki will be re-elected next week. Now it is time to seek new voices, to restore the faith of disillusioned voters. That can begin with strong public support for the Green Party.
The Aronowitz vision
A professor of sociology at CUNY, Stanley Aronowitz is a knowledgeable first-time candidate. Strongly, consistently progressive, he supports abortion rights, supports full rights and benefits --- including marriage --- for gays and lesbians, and wants the Rockefeller Drug Laws repealed.
He says he recognizes that money isn't the be-all, end-all answer to urban school districts' problems. But he says the state needs to raise new taxes to put urban and rural districts on par with wealthier districts.
He wants a moratorium on prison construction and objects to the use of prisons as economic-development measures. "You can just as well build better health facilities or better educational facilities or better recreational facilities," he says.
He supports raising the minimum wage dramatically, starting at least at $8 and moving toward $10 over three years.
He wants New York to regulate guns "like we regulate alcohol and other things." He wants "fairly rigorous standards for the sale of guns."
"That would not prevent people from buying guns on the black market," he says, but it would reduce the sale and use of guns. "The fact of the matter is that kids are disaffected," he says. "Lots of young people are unemployed. The programs of the state are inadequate. There needs to be a comprehensive program which addresses the issue of violence, which is not essentially a criminal-justice program."
He wants a moratorium on unfunded state mandates; more measures to help small, family farms; and incentives to move away from fossil-based fuels. He believes the state must take a bigger role in spurring the Upstate New York economy. "I happen to think that the private sector's ability to, by itself, generate new economic activity in Upstate New York is exhausted," he says.
The McCall message
In his campaign material, McCall has offered some solid ideas. And as state comptroller, he has sometimes been an aggressive advocate on such issues as the environment.
Using the leverage of the state's pension-fund holdings of General Electric stock, for instance, he pressed GE to agree to a PCB clean-up plan for the Hudson River. In his campaign, he has urged a brownfield cleanup bill, refinancing of the Superfund, and a state plan to reduce energy consumption. He wants to require utilities to buy 10 percent of their energy from renewable sources.
McCall is strongly pro-choice, strongly in favor of gay rights and equal protection. He wants insurers to offer equal coverage for mental and physical illness.
He wants more state aid for education. He wants to reform the state-aid formula to help urban districts. He wants smaller class sizes. He wants the state to "fulfill its promise" of a universal pre-kindergarten program.
He wants the state to negotiate discounts on prescription drugs. He wants to expand the eligibility guidelines for the EPIC drug-insurance program for older New Yorkers. He wants to expand health-care coverage for poor families.
But McCall's negatives are important. A vice president at banking behemoth Citicorp for eight years, and New York's comptroller since 1993, he certainly knows how to manage money. He also knows the state is facing a budget deficit that could reach $10 billion, and he knows his plans to increase funding for education and health care will cost the state money.
But when it comes to discussing a tax increase to realize his plan, McCall hedges, refusing to be specific about how his goals can be realized given the reality of the state's finances. We need a governor who'll give us some straight talk about the budget.
McCall has often said the right things about environmental protection, human rights, and corporate reform. Yet as overseer of the $100 billion-plus state pension fund, he's done odd things. The Village Voice recently condemned him for a "chilling pattern of social indifference" in opposing laudable shareholder resolutions. On dozens of occasions, said the Voice, he cast proxy votes against the adoption of the "CERES" code of conduct, which imposes modest "disclosure and accountability" requirements on corporations; and he frequently abstained (effectively a "no" vote) on shareholder resolutions that sought to improve global working conditions and rein in excessive CEO pay.
His unfocused campaign and his inability to counter the astonishing hemorrhaging of traditional Democratic support makes us worry that he would be, at best, ineffective as governor.
In his eight years in office, the governor has positioned himself as a moderate on some key issues, including abortion and the environment. It's important to remember that during his years in the state legislature, he was strongly conservative, a favorite of the Christian right and anti-abortionists.
Maybe he has had a change of heart. The evidence, though, is that he has become increasingly political, fashioning his public positions to achieve his political goals.
Pataki took office talking about New York's high taxes and promising to get the state's economy moving forward. His legacy may well be the economy, but not in the way he had planned. The state almost certainly faces tough economic times. Earlier this month, the New York Times reported that state revenue is off dramatically from the Pataki administration's predictions, and expenses are up.
Pataki did not cause all of this, of course. But he leaned too heavily on an unrealistic stock market performance, cut taxes too much (and passed the pain down to local government). And he hasn't articulated a plan to pull us out of decline.
Since he took office, New York's poverty rate has increased. The state's debt level has continued to climb. Unfunded state mandates have increased, driving up the cost of local government.
A tough-on-crime crusader, Pataki brought the death penalty back to New York and eliminated parole for violent offenders.
He has fought a suit to make state aid to urban school districts more equitable --- despite clear evidence that New York's public-school systems rival those of the South in the first half of the 20th century in segregation and inequality. He reneged on a promise to fund universal pre-kindergarten programs.
Pataki's administration has saved some significant natural areas through conservation easements and (occasionally) outright purchase. The Pataki record on toxics and environmental enforcement is less than stellar, though. For example, he's been pushing an inadequate cleanup standard for brownfields; the standard would allow too much pollution to remain at some former industrial sites.
In some important areas, Pataki's record is one of unfulfilled promises. He continues to say that he favors gay rights and reform of the Rockefeller Drug Laws. But he is completing his second term as governor, and he has done little to bring about those changes.
Pataki's pro-business leanings go well beyond making the state "business friendly." Media coverage over the years paints a picture of an administration doling out favors and political appointments to friends and major contributors. The state health department's record is one of lax enforcement and coziness with business interests.
And Pataki's attitude toward the public has veered into arrogance. He has permitted no serious newspaper interviews during this campaign --- not with this newspaper, not with the Democrat and Chronicle, not with the New York Times. On the few occasions when the media have had a chance to question him --- at Pataki-instigated press conferences to announce vote-winning handouts, for instance --- he has turned aside campaign-related questions with asinine answers: "I'm proud of my record on...."
If it weren't for his money, few people would be taking the campaign of Our Very Own Billionaire seriously. But money talks, and impresses, and so the media are treating Tom Golisano as a contender.
For the most part, Golisano's vision is straight-down-the-line, no-nonsense CEO: reduce spending, operate more efficiently, make the state more business-friendly. He wants to restrict Medicaid, reduce workers' compensation benefits. He's been quoted as favoring a reduction in education spending, but in a New York Times interview, he was less clear, saying he'd insist that school districts operate more efficiently before giving them more money.
Golisano favors "initiative and referendum," letting New Yorkers initiate and vote on proposed laws, as Californians do. He wants the Rockefeller Drug Laws repealed and wants anti-drug efforts focused on prevention and treatment, not incarceration.
Golisano has caught the fancy of some media types who see in him a way to reform state government. But the state's governance problems run deeper than one person. And the governor's responsibilities --- and influence --- are great. A vote for Golisano would be a peculiar protest indeed. The message it would send is the worst possible message: money rules.
We already know that from Pataki.