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September 26th, 2006

Who Should Run a Legislature, the Speaker or the Members?

by Henry Stern

Here are some observations on efforts to secure legislative reform, followed by some political history of a City Council contest for leadership and reflections on the conflict in legislatures between individual autonomy and institutional stability.

A coalition of civic groups is pressing for reform of New York State’s legislative and budgetary rules. Jo Brill of the Citizens Budget Commission is doing an admirable job of collecting and compiling proposals for reform, comments from experts, and editorials from newspapers around the state.

The election of a new governor brings stirrings of hope that, next year, public issues will be handled differently, with more emphasis on substance, fairness and transparency, and less on rewards for obedient legislators. We recognize that honorable people, elected to serve in Albany, are ensnared in a system where the way they can be most effective is by going along with the leadership that they have chosen. They are aware that being a rebel means becoming a pariah, with no chance of influencing either legislation or appropriations. But going along involves the surrender of the ability to make choices for yourself.

We had very strong leadership in the City Council at the time I served there, 1974 to 1983. The alpha male was Thomas J. Cuite of Brooklyn, a social conservative whose title was Vice Chairman and Majority Leader. Cuite dominated the Council from 1969 to l985. He ran a tight ship, and any dissenter was required to seek his permission to “go off the reservation” on an issue. Such permission was rarely granted, and the member who defied the leader did so at his or her peril.

When Cuite retired due to impending illness and a prospective primary, Peter F. Vallone of Queens was elected majority leader by a vote of 18-17. Every vote for him was the deciding vote, but two deserve special attention. Susan Molinari, the Council’s lone Republican and the daughter of Staten Island Borough President Guy Molinari, voted for Vallone, the Democrat.

Molinari was subsequently elected to Congress, and served there creditably. She keynoted the Republican National Convention in 1996. She married a colleague, Congressman Bill Paxon of upstate New York, whose park name ‘Bovine’ reflected his district. The couple left Congress on their own initiative, in part despairing of their chances to gain greater influence in the House of Representatives.

The other deciding vote was cast by Robert J. Dryfoos, who recently passed away. Dryfoos had promised his Manhattan colleagues that he would vote for Vallone’s rival along with the rest of the delegation. He renewed his commitment ten minutes before the vote, but when called upon he pulled from his pocket a written statement supporting Vallone. It turns out that this switch had been plotted weeks ago in conjunction with Stanley Friedman, the Bronx Democratic leader, and Donald Manes, the late Borough President of Queens. Both men subsequently had legal issues, as a result of which Manes took his own life. Friedman endured imprisonment, and has become a valuable member of society, which shows how different people respond to stress.

As a result of his treachery, Dryfoos was ostracized by his Manhattan colleagues, but amply rewarded by Vallone. He was selected to chair the Committee on State Legislation. After Dyrfoos completed his term on the Council in 1991 he became a lobbyist. His clients were well treated by the Council and he prospered. BTW, his successor in the Council was Gifford Miller who served ten years, four as Speaker, before term limits compelled him to seek another office.

It was widely felt that Dryfoos had a right to vote for whoever he chose, but lying about it was vile. In fact, Vallone was probably a better candidate and made a more effective leader than his rival. The issue in this situation was whether Dryfoos had a moral obligation to be truthful to his colleagues. He had no legal obligation to do so; he was not under oath when he lied.

Tactically, the reason for nondisclosure of his true sentiments was that if it were known that Vallone was one vote up rather than down, there could have been an effort to pry away one of his supporters, which would have led to a different result. By keeping their ace in the hole up their sleeve, to coin a phrase, the Friedman-Manes team gained a decisive advantage. It was their last coup, a few days before Manes attempted suicide. Several months later he succeeded.

Historically, Vallone turned out to be a competent Speaker who led the Council responsibly as it gained additional budgetary powers. He worked in co-operation with Mayor Koch, and later with Mayor Dinkins and Mayor Giuliani. He also kept his promise to Dryfoos to bring the gay rights bill to the floor, where it was adopted in 1986 after Cuite had bottled it up for a dozen years. Vallone voted No on gay rights, but his consent to let it out of committee was decisive.

There was, however, not much autonomy for individual members (especially on the budget), and in that respect the Council was comparable to the Senate and Assembly. While legislative positions may be determined by party caucuses, the leader’s influence dominates the caucus. Some issues never even reach the caucus.

Reformers and editorial boards agree that the current process suppresses open dissent and reduces individual influence in the making of laws and the appropriation of funds. It is argued that strong leadership is necessary for a legislature to be effective, rather than a mess of squawlers and brawlers (e.g. Iraq).

In this situation, contradictory charges are made by both the democrats and the autocrats. Rule 30-T wisely states: “The truth lies somewhere in between.” Finding that somewhere is the problem. The balance could certainly shift in the direction of openness and broader participation in the decision making process. But one must never underestimate the troglodytes.

Filed Under: Articles | New York | Politics

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