Login Get News Updates
For local news delivered via email enter address here:
Profile Subscriptions Mobile Tablet
Political January 5, 2012  RSS feed

The Power Of Minority Parties

by Michael Gormley

(AP) Conventional wisdom at an Albany bill signing ceremony is that minority party legislators have less to do with enacting the law than the pen used to sign it.

And in a state Legislature where the majorities wield far more power than in most states, that’s usually true.

But on a regular basis, Democrats in New York’s Senate and their minority Republican colleagues in the Assembly break through with ideas that affect New Yorkers, even if they don’t get the credit.

That millionaire tax increase and middle-class tax break unveiled by

-SEE ANALYSIS ON PG. 28- Gov. Andrew Cuomo and approved by legislative leaders this month? The idea was proposed in November by Democratic Sen. Jeffrey Klein, who represents part of the Bronx and Westchester.

The bill by Cuomo and legislative leaders to make coaches mandated reporters of child sex abuse following the investigation of a former basketball coach at Syracuse University? The idea was proposed in November by Republican Assemblyman James Tedisco of Saratoga and Schenectady counties after a similar scandal erupted at Penn State.

“The minority party comes up with ideas, and, yes, the majority parties steal the minorities’ ideas on a regular basis,” said Steven Greenberg of the Siena College poll.

Most of the time, the bills proposed by minority party lawmakers never get to committee, to say nothing of a true debate in the Senate and Assembly chambers.

“In a sense, it’s more gratifying than frustrating,” Tedisco said of the apparent snub. “A leader should be based on the quality and content of his or her ideas. I would say the sincerest form of flattery is imitation, and I am highly flattered.”

Klein first proposed his millionaire tax with a middle-class tax break three years ago. Now, it’s praised as brilliant politics. Still, he said he actually enjoys that part of the process.

“I think it’s incumbent on us to raise the issues,” he said. “Sometimes the ideas don’t rise for two or three years. Sometimes they don’t resonate until you see something like Occupy Wall Street.”

That point is critical now, as Senate Republicans and Assembly Democrats who hold power engage in the redistricting process. Every 10 years, majorities redraw election district lines, a process roundly criticized as protecting their jobs and their power, and minimizing the voice of minority party lawmakers. The majorities have said they will break with tradition and draw fair lines that should encourage more competitive races and more minority party power.

That would be a first.

The public may never really know the success of minority lawmakers. Legislators devote so much money and staff to taking credit for popular actions and disavowing or ignoring controversial ones that it’s hard to tell. In this fight for public attention, minority party legislators have long been at a disadvantage in how much they can spend compared to majority members.

If their idea isn’t immediately commandeered, a minority legislator has options.

“First, you have to communicate to your colleagues,” Tedisco said. “Then to your constituents and then you need a full and thoughtful airing by the fourth estate. I think it shows people aren’t powerful in government; ideas are powerful.”

Tedisco’s other adventures in what some would consider windmill tilting hastened the political fall of a self-proclaimed steamroller: Democratic Gov. Eliot Spitzer. In 2007, Tedisco drew popular support against Spitzer’s plan to issue driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants, and Tedisco won.

And years before Democratic Gov. David Paterson proposed it and Cuomo made it law this year, Tedisco and his Republican colleagues wore “tax cap” hats into session to push to control the growth of taxes.

“I was in the Assembly for 10 years, in the majority, and I was in charge of a committee,” said Klein, a member of the influential Independent Democratic Conference, a bloc of four Senators who seek a bipartisan path. “When I went to the Senate, I saw my colleagues always on the sidelines, sniping. I said, ‘Hey, I can raise issues.’ So I hit the ground running.”

Klein’s successes included eliminating the five-year statute of limitations on rape. He created a coalition of women’s advocates, victims’ rights groups and others, conducted public hearings, held a big press conference on Father’s Day and dialed up the pressure for action four years ago. In the end, Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, a Long Island Republican, added Klein’s name as a prime co-sponsor, a rare credit.

“You can’t do it without grassroots support,” Klein said.

“I think there’s ego involved in that your name isn’t on the final bill, or maybe as a multi-sponsor,” said Greenberg, the pollster. “But the minority still has a very important role to play.”

Tedisco, with nearly 30 years in Albany, puts a sharper point on it.

“The world is full of totalitarian states with dictators and they can get things done,” he said. “But that’s not a representative democracy and a vocal minority is critical.”