The BenCen Blog

Informing Public Discourse in the Hudson Valley and Across the State

Category: Trumpism in New York

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.

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

If You Want Diverse Representation, Vote for a Constitutional Convention

The last time New York held a constitutional convention abortion was illegal.

That was 1967. And despite the passage of 50 years the now legal practice is still under threat. The most recent action by the Trump Administration will, ironically, make it more common for women to need abortions (by making it harder to obtain birth control).

What’s changed since 1967, despite Trump’s actions, is that by an increasing majority Americans would like abortion to remain safe and legal.

This is even more the case in New York State. A recent Quinnipiac poll  found that New Yorkers favor a state constitutional amendment to legalize abortion by a margin of 68-27 percent.

Slam dunk, right? NYS Legislature should take this up immediately.

This right isn’t enshrined in New York’s constitution, because there has been no move to amend the sprawling document to this end. The amendment process requires two consecutively elected legislatures to vote in favor, and then the change must be voted on in a general election. While the majority of statewide constituents favor such an amendment, the NYS Senate is far more conservative than the state’s voters, making sure that abortion rights will not soon be written into the constitution.

But there’s another pathway to protect a woman’s right to choose, as well as the rights that every person of every race and religion is protected, and that LGBTQ rights are protected, even as federal efforts are actively underway to undermine them both by employers and in the military.

It’s called a constitutional convention and New Yorkers get the right to vote in favor of holding one every 20 years.

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On the Trump Administration’s Impact on Higher Education in the Hudson Valley

Guest post by Glenn Geher, Professor and Chair, Department of Psychology, and Founding Director of the Evolutionary Studies Program, SUNY New Paltz.

My Bronx grandma, Pearl Trilling, was fond of reminding me that experience was often the best teacher. “You’ll really understand Glenn,” Grandma Trilling would say, “when the shoe pinches you.”

Image: Wikicommons

My experience through the years has confirmed the observation that people rarely care much about a problem until they are directly affected. When the shoe pinches you, that’s when you care.

To say the least, the shoes Donald Trump is trying to make America wear are pinching lots of people, in lots of place, in lots of ways. Think immigration. Think health care. Think the environment. Elsewhere, I’ve spoken out on all of these issues. But because I work in higher education, I feel the pinch there directly.

A few weeks ago, I was informed about an international boycott on academic conferences in the USA – supported by thousands of academics from all around the world (as reported in Times Higher Education). The abortive executive order banning Muslims from seven nations, among other presidential actions, has led scholars world-wide to organize to take a stand against what is happening in our country. (Thankfully, that order, as well as a more narrowly focused redo, has thus far been stopped in its tracks by the courts.)

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How SUNY New Paltz Students View Trump’s Impact on Their Lives and Futures

Guest post by Karla Vermeulen, SUNY New Paltz Assistant Professor of Psychology and Deputy Director of the Institute for Disaster Mental Health

Since the election in November, our students’ reactions at SUNY New Paltz have been on display in protest demonstrations, in the classroom, and in a small but disturbing number of acts of vandalism on campus. Their level of passion is evident, but what do students actually believe about the Trump administration’s likely effect on their lives? To find out, Psychology MA student Melissa Blankstein and I launched a survey at the beginning of the semester, “Election 2016: How Will the Outcome Impact You?”

We received 358 web survey responses from current New Paltz students. Obviously this group was self-selected, and is not necessarily representative of the entire student body, but the intensity of responses among those who chose to participate was remarkable, and seems important and worthwhile to share.

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On President Trump and Trumpism: A Roundtable Discussion at SUNY New Paltz

Last week, the Department of Political Science and International Relations at SUNY New Paltz convened a roundtable discussion on the state of the Trump presidency a little more than two weeks in. Clocking in at just over an hour, the panel discussion and ensuing conversation with the audience set the context for where we are and where we might be going. The take-away was that one possible solution to Trump and his ambiguities lies in an institutional response to Trumpism, and that audience members might best channel their energies to directed political organization and action, including running for office, as a means to confront and resist the politics of prevarication and anti-democratic calumny over the next 4 years.

Photo credit: KT Tobin

The panel, composed of Nancy Kassop, Stephen Pampinella, Daniel Lipson, and Gerald Benjamin, offered views grounded in the ethic of resistance and response, not reaction. The discussion was organized around questions posed by moderator Scott Minkoff. With particular attention to institutional dynamics, panelists offered their views on domestic government and politics, international relations, and environmental politics. The discussion focused in particular on two dimensions: Trump’s political strengths and weaknesses, and the institutions and industrial and populist partisans that are now organizing in opposition to the president’s inarticulate, inchoate arch-conservative, corporate-friendly policy agenda.

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