By former Assemblymember Steven Sanders
This week the state legislature and the governor will try to beat the April 1 deadline and agree to a budget for the new fiscal year. That’s always the centerpiece of state government action.
It is easy to be nostalgic and imagine that previous times were the good old days. In truth, there were some really positive things happening in the state government back when I arrived in the Assembly in 1978.
For one thing, there was not such a partisan political divide. In those days, the Assembly was controlled by the Democrats and the Senate was controlled by the Republicans. But neither party had such a total numerical stranglehold on their respective houses. So it was necessary for Democrats and Republicans to try to work together to get things done between the houses and also within each house.
Of course there were profound differences of opinions on any number of issues. But Governor Hugh Carey and his successor Mario Cuomo always seemed to find a light touch to deal with the legislature and with the opposing party. The incumbent governor just can’t seem to find that same easy manner.
Most evenings were spent in comradery having dinner or some drinks with your colleagues of both parties and not going to the plethora of fundraising events that have dominated the nighttime scene in Albany in recent years. In fact it was not until the 1990s that we began to see the proliferation of fundraising events for individual members, as well as the explosion of the cost of those political contributions. Imagine spending $500 for a moment with your favorite legislator and eating a meatball.
For most of the 1980s, Stanley Fink was Speaker of the State Assembly and Warren Anderson was the Senate Majority Leader. Two more different personalities you would not find. Fink a gruff product of the rough and tumble Brooklyn Democratic machine and Anderson the more courtly son of Binghamton. They argued about most everything and then found common ground. Budgets were passed on time and the work got done. They both would complain about Governors Carey and Cuomo and the governors would surely reciprocate.
But there was an understanding of a shared responsibility to serve the people of the State of New York. At that point the Brennan Center for Justice had not dubbed the New York State Legislature the most dysfunctional such body in the nation. That would come years later. Nor were there allegations of sexual misconduct by members or staff. Moreover the litany of indictments, convictions and imprisonment of state legislators and other government officials had not yet begun.
So the good old days? Maybe, maybe not. Do we wish to go back a few decades? Those were simpler and somewhat naive times. But I suspect that the misbehavior and even felonious activities of some was present, just not reported or investigated by the press or prosecutors. So we are tempted to think of those days with a rear view from rose colored glasses, perhaps more aptly blinders.
One thing for sure, the state legislature of the 1970s and 1980s was quite homogenous and overwhelmingly male and white. There were no women or persons of color in leadership. Today the speaker of the Assembly and the Assembly majority leader are both African American as is the Senate majority leader. Two of them are women. A case in point… in 1979, of the 210 Assembly members and State Senate members, only 13 were women… and that was the high water mark to date. Today there are 70. Not yet half, but not half bad.
And there are far more minority communities represented with African American, Latino, Asian members without regard to sexual orientation, where few if any had before served. The state government today, and particularly the legislature, is for sure imperfect, but it is far more robust and representative of New Yorkers than ever before. Three “persons” in a room has replaced three (white) men. A big step forward.
I look back fondly on the 28 years that I served in the Assembly. Those were great years, at least for me. I served with some brilliant minds and dedicated public servants. Not the least of whom was my chief of staff, longtime Stuyvesant Town resident Stephen Kaufman. But truth be told the current makeup of the legislature and its leadership offers the people of this state greater representation and more hope for the future. Excelsior!