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Legacy Content / MOST DYSFUNCTIONAL STATES

No. 1: New York

July 13, 2009

Leadership Problems: 10

First, Gov. Eliot Spitzer (D) acknowledged visiting high-end prostitutes and resigned. Then Spitzer's successor, David Paterson (D), acknowledged just days after being installed that he had used drugs and had extramarital affairs. And then, Paterson was widely accused of mishandling the selection of a successor to Hillary Rodham Clinton's Senate seat.

 

Ah, those were the good old days. For the Empire State, it's only gotten worse.

While Paterson has seen his approval ratings dip into the 20 percent range -- and while almost two-thirds of voters in a recent Marist poll consider him a weak leader -- one surprise political development actually managed to make him look (slightly) better by comparison. Last month, Republicans in the state Senate lured two disaffected Democrats to support a vote that switched leadership of the narrowly divided chamber to the GOP. Then one of those Democrats returned to the fold, leaving the chamber evenly split -- and skidding into ridiculousness.

A recent Los Angeles Times piece nicely summarized the follies. Lawmakers "have convened dueling sessions -- each claiming legitimacy -- huffed over which party should lead members in the Pledge of Allegiance and fought about whether a Republican lawmaker crossing the chamber to fetch a drink should have counted toward a quorum, allowing Democrats to pass more than 100 'noncontroversial' bills, which the state Assembly refuses to recognize."

Democrats for a time sought to keep Republicans out of the chamber by locking the doors, the newspaper reported, and at one point, "the two sides held simultaneous sessions, wielding separate gavels, passing two sets of legislation and heckling and shouting past each other to be heard by their respective presiding officers."

On Thursday, the situation took a step toward stability as Sen. Pedro Espada Jr. of the Bronx, the remaining Democratic defector, returned to the fold. But the circumstances of his defection and return were so controversial that both parties saw their image undermined in the process. Espada has legal issues, so Democrats spent weeks arguing that the GOP's agreement to elevate him to Senate president pro tempore was craven. Then on Thursday, the Democrats agreed to take Espada back -- and make him Senate majority leader. (The exact powers of that position going forward are unclear, though traditionally the post is extraordinarily powerful.)

It's not as if the New York legislature was a beacon of rectitude before the current mess began. According to a scathing series of reports by New York University Law School's Brennan Center for Justice, committees barely met, oversight of the executive branch was rare, required fiscal impact statements were never completed and Internet postings of legislative information were scattershot.

"The Senate of the state of New York has created the dubious distinction of becoming the most dysfunctional legislature in the country, and I am totally embarrassed and frustrated by this situation," said Len Cutler, a Siena College political scientist with 25 years' experience as a state Senate aide. "The Democrats and Republicans in the Senate have themselves to blame for this disaster."

Criminality: 8

Both figures at the center of the switch in party control are dogged by legal concerns.

According to media reports, Sen. Hiram Monserrate of Queens has been indicted on felony charges of stabbing his girlfriend with a broken glass. (After initially voting with the GOP to switch control, Monserrate later decided to return to the Democratic fold.)

And Espada has been fined in the tens of thousands of dollars for failing to disclose political contributions. In addition, a nonprofit he ran, Soundview HealthCare Network, is reportedly being investigated by the state attorney general.

Statewide Challenges: 10

The good news is that legislators and the governor agreed on a $131.8 billion state budget before the Senate devolved into a circus. The bad news is that the monthlong crisis let lots of other urgent issues fester, including how to cushion the recession's blow to the state economy, which has been hit especially hard in such key areas for the state as financial services.

Beyond economic concerns were matters that in normal times would seem like formalities but which in the power vacuum loomed large. For instance, the authority wielded by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg over the city's school system expired, forcing officials to reconstitute the Board of Education. Other authorities exercised by local governments lapsed without legislative renewals.

Media Circus: 9

New York City is the media capital of the world, and it is home to two of the feistiest tabloids in the country, the New York Post and the Daily News. Rest assured that the standoff in the legislature -- not to mention every stumble by the governor -- is going to be milked for all it's worth.

TOTAL DYSFUNCTIONALITY: 9.25

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