The BenCen Blog

Informing Public Discourse in the Hudson Valley and Across the State

Author: Michael Frank (page 1 of 2)

Six Things You Need to Know About New York’s Blue Wave 

Dr. Gerald Benjamin of the Benjamin Center has written or edited more than  a dozen books on the workings of New York State government and politics. In light of historic changes in the balance of power in New York State on Tuesday, it seemed all-too-obvious to get Benjamin’s quick take on what has happened and what it means for New York’s voters. 

Next Wednesday, November 15th, Benjamin will co-lead a conversation at the State Academy for Public Administration in Albany on this topic. But ahead of that event here’s Benjamin’s framing.

The Most Important, Least-Discussed “Win” for Democrats

Benjamin said the statewide majority in the Senate, retention of the Governorship by Cuomo, and the firm grip on the Assembly is a precursor to retaining control of all three branches in 2020 and controlling redistricting. “We had a constitutional amendment to mitigate partisanship and redistricting. But the final say remains with legislators.” Consequently, he said, we can be sure that Democratic control will be cemented in both houses, and congressional districts will be redesigned to favor them. 

However, speaking on WNYC’s Brian Lehrer Show Wednesday, Senators Michael Gianaris and Liz Krueger said they’re not happy with the redistricting amendment. “It was really nothing more than an awful political outcome,” Gianaris said. “The Republicans made sure that they ingrained an unfair process in the state Constitution.” Kreuger pointed out that, given the state’s party alignment, Democrats would still secure their majorities without the level of gerrymandering that exists today. “You can do redistricting independently and fairly and you’re still going to end up with more Democratic Senate seats because the gerrymandering has been so unfair for so many decades.” 

How many decades? 

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The Benjamin Center Update

An ongoing look at our research, events, and news coverage by and about our scholarship.

Calendar

November 6th
The Benjamin Center’s associate director, K.T. Tobin, will be a guest of Radio Kingston talking about Sam Sinyangwe’s studies of police violence against African American communities. This will be ahead of Sinyangwe’s visit to the SUNY New Paltz campus (see next listing). Tobin will be on air at 4:30 PM and you can stream the station live on your computer or phone. 

November 8th
Sam Sinyangwe will be a guest of the Benjamin Center for an event at SUNY New Paltz at the Lecture Center at 6 PM. Sinyangwe is a data scientist who works with communities of color to fight systemic racism through cutting-edge policies and strategies. He connected with fellow activists DeRay Mckesson, Johnetta Elzie and Brittany Packnett following the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and together they founded Mapping Police Violence, a data-driven effort to quantify the impact of police violence in communities. Sinyangwe is also a co-founder of Campaign Zero, a platform for advancing reform proposals to end police violence. Along with writer Clint Smith, he also hosts “Pod Save the People,” one of the most popular news and politics podcasts in the U.S. This event is free and open to the public; click for more information.

November 14
After his series about the City of Poughkeepsie’s failure to follow its own plans for a successful economic, social, and business environment, and its unfair tax lien system that puts homeowners at risk of losing equity in properties seized by the city, the Benjamin Center’s senior research associate, Joshua Simons, will be part of a panel discussing a land banking system. The event, Understanding Poughkeepsie’s Tax Lien System and Opportunities for Land Banking, will include guests, Tarik Abdelazim, Associate Director of National Technical Assistance, Center for Community Progress, Jennifer Holmes, Assistant Counsel, NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and Madeline Fletcher, Executive Director, Newburgh Community Land Bank. It will be held at the Mid-Hudson Heritage Center, 317 Main St., Poughkeepsie, from 5:45 to 8:00 PM; click for more information.

BenCen in the News

City & State: Why Cuomo never had to debate Molinaro
Bloomberg: Molinaro has no Chance
White Plains Daily Voice: Westchester to use Benjamin Center Guidelines to save County Tax Dollars
The New York Post: New York School Testing’s Epic Failure
Gotham Gazette: The Attorney General’s Real Job
Wild Earth: Hopeful Signs for Kids Learning from Structured Outdoor Play

The Attorney General’s Actual Job

When you vote today for New York Attorney General, ask yourself: What’s their actual job?

Based on the campaigning by candidates in the Democratic primary it’s clear they think voters value independence from the executive, so that they can end corruption in Albany.

While all the candidates for the post have campaigned on acting as the state’s chief prosecutor, there’s no such description in the state constitution. There are some limited statutory powers that support the prosecutorial role. Eliot Spitzer, for example, rediscovered the attorney general’s extensive powers under the Martin Act, passed in 1921 to counter rampant securities fraud. Because New York is an international financial capital, the state’s AG is uniquely situated to be a major player in policing the national economy. Here’s one place where independence does count. Spitzer’s aggressive pursuit of abuses by big Wall Street brokerage houses and investment banks, followed by Andrew Cuomo’s and Eric Schneiderman’s after him, made the New York attorney general a nationally important figure.

But what about promising to crack down on corruption in Albany? Read the candidates’ campaign literature and you find that all say that once in office they’ll fight for constitutional and legal changes that would give them that latitude.  Right. How is that going to fly? Will the Legislature and the Executive easily yield to this oversight?

The attorney general’s actual bread and butter is anything but independent criminal investigation. The main job is chief lawyer, representing the executive branch of state government in court and advising state agencies on legal matters.

This requires coordination with not independence from the governor. The AG’s office has in the past declined to act on the executive’s behalf, but should it, and if so when and why? (You can read more about the history of the AG in our post on the Gotham Gazette.)

Also know that when you vote today, you may be voting for our next governor.  Despite the fact that Spitzer had to resign in disgrace and Schneiderman’s own sexual abuse scandal cost him the AG job, it has become the track to the executive.

You’re also voting for a check on the White House.

Because Donald Trump is a New Yorker the AG can directly investigate Trump for his pre-presidential personal and professional financial practices. One result is the current lawsuit seeking the dissolution of the Trump Foundation for persistent illegal practices over at least a decade. Further, it’s widely assumed that whoever emerges from the Democratic primary will not only win the statewide office in November (Democrats hold a nearly two-to-one majority in the electorate), they’ll go after Trump directly. Zephr Teachout has campaigned openly on suing Trump on violations of the U.S constitution’s emoluments clause. And while she didn’t have standing in her pursuit of this angle when she brought emoluments charges in 2017, as AG she or whoever else wins the office would presumably have standing as the representative of all New Yorkers.

So this office is incredibly powerful and relatively unique because it’s a state office with federal reach. Just know that whoever wins may have more power to impact corruption on Wall Street and in Washington than in Albany.

The Tangled Web of Administering Veterans’ Benefits in New York 

In 2014 the State of New York sent 6,347 soldiers into the U.S. military, widely considered the best trained, best organized armed force on the planet. 

Unfortunately a recent study by the Benjamin Center’s Dr. Gerald Benjamin and Timothy Toomey, both veterans themselves, found that New York state’s own organization serving our veterans once they return from service is disorganized and dysfunctional. And among the findings of the recent discussion brief, are that although service members are required to receive lengthy separation counseling, where they also learn of multiple support systems that include state and federal networks ranging from health care to education, employment, and financial and legal benefits, all too frequently these new veterans get fire-hosed with information. 

As one analyst noted:

… [M]embers of today’s military have many resources at their fingertips when they separate, but it’s often incredibly overwhelming. Transitioning service members are trying to change careers, and may be moving themselves and families across the country, all while doing their day jobs up until terminal leave. Many service members may still be trying to figure out exactly what they want to do.

It’s not just that veterans may not hear of benefits they’re qualified for, either. Toomey and Benjamin’s research shows that veterans may be victims of fraud as a result of getting conflicting information, or they may over-pay when they’re entitled to benefits. For instance, in New York state law requires that localities offer veterans partial exemption from property taxes; there are specially focused programs for veterans with service-related disabilities, and for those who have gotten caught up in the criminal justice system.

The problem goes beyond information overload, however. Too frequently New York’s State Division of Veteran Affairs overlaps county entities, and the agencies are either at cross purposes or frequently not in communication with each other, or literally feuding over turf instead of working in unison. Rarely are these layers of bureaucracy in touch with each other, working from the same databases, or even aware that they’re offering similar services to the same constituent base.

A further problem is that there’s a fundamental lack of accountability Continue reading

The End of Cheap Water

Aging Infrastructure is Driving Up Costs in the Hudson Valley

New York State has some of the oldest water and sewer networks in the country. But unlike roads and bridges, where we see the direct effects of what that means (like an axle-smashing pothole that causes accidents and lawsuits), leaking pipes are underground. We know that sometimes the water coming out of our faucets can be rusty or brown, that water main breaks can unexpectedly disrupt our commutes or errands, and that our water bills may have slowly increased through the years. But despite these impacts on our daily lives, we rarely recognize the connection to our aging infrastructure.

Or, as is the case in Flint, Michigan, and Newburgh, New York, we only know there’s a dire problem after the fact, when the water turns out to be poisonous.

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What We Lost When We Vetoed a Constitutional Convention

 

Calling a state constitutional convention is New York’s long established method for fundamental, systematic governmental reform. Yet in a period of pandemic corruption and enormous anger at government, with demands for change from all across the political spectrum, New Yorkers rejected the convention option by a margin of 5-1 this past November. In essence, if 2016 was a year of great demand for change, the regret set in quickly afterward, and 2017 became a year, at least in New York, of holding fast to a system that people perceived to be less frightening than yet more change.

Peter Galie and Gerald Benjamin, co-authors with Christopher Bopst of New York’s Broken Constitution, and strong convention advocates, sat down a few weeks after the election for a post mortem. The reasons for the crushing defeat of the convention question, they thought, were both structural and political. Most voters didn’t even know there is a state constitution; they don’t distinguish between it and the revered national document, which most of them certainly don’t want to be touched in an era in which basic rights are threatened. New York has no initiative process; referenda are limited in use and unfamiliar to many as a way of making decisions. The wording of the convention question, mandated in the constitution for use every twenty years, requires that everything be on the table if a convention is called.

This scares those who have constitutionally guaranteed benefits or favored policies that they don’t want to risk.

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Are Harvey Weinstein and Roy Moore Our Fault?

November continued an unabated, grim chronicle of sexual assaults perpetrated by powerful men against women in positions of relative weakness or outright dependence. It’s easy (and justified) to condemn the offenders, but does the society in some measure have itself to blame as well? Dr. Eve Waltermaurer of the Benjamin Center at SUNY New Paltz has been studying violence in intimate relationships for twenty years. The results of her recent Views on Women (VOW) poll offers disquieting insights into the social context for these acts of sexual assault.

The VOW poll—supported by the Times Union’s Women@Work —randomly surveyed 1,050 New Yorkers across the state. Findings from VOW identify a far deeper societal struggle about rape and sexual assault than most of us realize, chiefly that we tend to blame the victims of these assaults, and not solely the offenders, according to Waltermaurer.

For instance, when asked if a woman dressing in provocative clothing contributes to her being raped, over 60 percent of men aged 18-35 believe it does. But it is not just men who hold these attitudes. Strikingly, Waltermaurer found that just under 45 percent of women in the same age bracket agree with this sentiment.

These disturbing poll responses, Waltermaurer says, are unfortunately part of a pattern we’ve been unable to break. And while we hear many young women speak out against these abuses and for women’s empowerment, Waltermaurer has found that younger women may actually subscribe to negative attitudes toward women who are victims of sexual violence more frequently than their older counterparts. “One reason older women more frequently reject the idea of sexual and domestic violence as ‘normal’ is that as they gain self-confidence over time they realize, ‘I don’t need to accept this.’ A younger woman, in terms of relationships, has not quite achieved this confidence.”

A chief problem is that even today, Waltermaurer asserts, we do not know how to talk about these issues, especially when sex is involved. Sex is shunned Continue reading

Elected Officials and Social Media Use: Should There be Rules?

Social Media can make government better, more accessible, more transparent, more accountable, all good things. But when elected officials decide that government social media accounts are theirs to use as they please, we may be in very different territory. Sheriff Paul Van Blarcum reminded us of that this week.

In 2015 the Benjamin Center studied how local governments in the Mid-Hudson region use their websites and social media. We found that nearly 97 percent of the towns, villages, and cities of the region had some digital presence. At the time of the study 60 percent of local governments had a Facebook presence, but barely one fifth were on Twitter. (This was in the sleepy pre-Trump era of Twitter.) In general, we found that the more open governments are with constituents, the more they engender trust.

Even though our study was conducted barely two years ago, it came against a very different societal backdrop. President Obama was behind the push for government at all levels to communicate electronically with the goal of increasing trust and accountability. These days cities like Kingston and Poughkeepsie maintain fairly active Twitter accounts and post frequently. This seems appropriate: In our fast-paced era, when even Facebook seems too onerous to peruse, governments that can blast quick info to constituents (especially missives that can be read on a phone) are reaching people quickly and simply.

But what happens to the trust that openness engenders when the public official steps out of his or her governance role, and uses official social media platforms to advance personal views, or agendas?

Once Donald Trump pardoned Sheriff Joe Arpaio in Arizona, sheriffs around the country have felt emboldened to use social media to express their own views, sometimes using government platforms as their bullhorn. The latest but hardly the most inflammatory missive came this past weekend when Ulster County Sheriff Paul Van Blarcum used both Facebook and Twitter to tell citizens to boycott the NFL because, he argued, players taking a knee during the national anthem were being unpatriotic.

This isn’t nearly as disturbing as sheriffs in Oklahoma trying to thwart criminal justice reform through use of official social media communications.  Continue reading

Why Republicans Fear a NYS Constitutional Convention

By Michael Frank

There are more than 150 groups that are in opposition to the proposed ballot amendment for the constitutional convention. Pro-choice groups and anti-abortion rights groups. Pro-union groups and anti-union groups. Pro-gun rights groups and gun control groups. The common thread? Political power. The only logical reason these folks don’t want a New York State Constitutional Convention – a Con Con – is that they presently enjoy a toehold in Albany that they very much like. Upset the system and they have to reestablish a network and grapple with a new order where they may not have as much juice, and the last thing interest groups like is change, because it means that the power has shifted away from their control.

You know what that’s called? Democracy.

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Lawn Signs Lie: A Constitutional Convention Will Not Threaten Teacher Pensions

The biggest threat to democracy these days isn’t the faltering executive branch of the United States government. Rather, Gerald Benjamin, founder of the Benjamin Center at SUNY New Paltz, echoes Franklin Roosevelt and says the biggest threat is fear. Fear of losing rights rather than understanding, as he puts it, “We’re living in a moment of great civic engagement. It’s been sparked by Trump and it means people are alive to both the threat to their rights and to the possibility of what can be done.”

And these two poles — fear of what could be lost as well as the possibility of what could be gained — are playing out on the state level in New York State politics this year as the debate over the constitutional convention turns on a single issue: pensions.

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