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Eye on the News

Fred Siegel
An Upheaval to Remember
2010 is shaping up to be a rare year in American politics.
6 January 2010

With trust in government at perhaps an all-time low, 2010 looks as though it will be an extraordinarily intense and unpredictable political year. In just the last two days, the five-term but scandal-tarred Senator Christopher Dodd of Connecticut has decided not to run for reelection; so has Democratic Senator Byron Dorgan of North Dakota; so has Governor Bill Ritter of Colorado, another Democrat. White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel has hinted that he will leave the administration in about six months to run for mayor of Chicago. And the Obama administration’s mishandling of health care and terrorism has introduced uncertainty even in Massachusetts, a state that hasn’t had a Republican in the U.S. Senate since 1972, where state senator Scott Brown is within range of Democrat Martha Coakley in the January 19 special election to fill Ted Kennedy’s seat. If he wins, Brown would represent the decisive vote against the Democrats’ health-care plans.

But New York may be in for the wildest ride of all. It’s the only state where both U.S. senators are up for election in 2010, and it will also choose a governor, state legislators, and members of Congress this year. In the last few days, Suffolk County’s popular executive, Steve Levy, has been testing the waters for a gubernatorial run against Governor David Paterson and Attorney General Andrew Cuomo in the Democratic Party primary. While his counterparts in Nassau and Westchester Counties went down to defeat at the hands of a property-tax revolt this past November, Levy, something of a fiscal conservative and a hard-liner on illegal immigration, has emerged as a Democrat with crossover appeal. If the Democrats don’t nominate him, some Republicans would like to see him displace lackluster Rick Lazio on the GOP’s ticket. Meanwhile, defeated New York City mayoral candidate Bill Thompson, with one eye on likely future mayoral candidate Bill DeBlasio, has given up on challenging Senator Kirsten Gillibrand in the Democratic primary, announcing instead that he will make another run for mayor in 2013. No sooner had Thompson removed himself as a challenger to Gillibrand than former Tennessee congressman Harold Ford, a moderate Democrat who moved to Gotham three years ago, sent up a trial balloon. Ford, it seems, is interested in challenging the vulnerable Gillibrand in the primary.

And it’s only January 6!

President Obama’s ambitious but ill-conceived agenda is reverberating through New York State, intertwining all levels of politics—federal, state, city, and even local, at least where Tea Partiers are active. For instance, with the state suffering from record levels of debt and the first-ever deficit in its general fund, congressional votes for Obamacare could cost Albany billions of dollars and are likely to result in reduced services, increased taxes, and an angry electorate. That could have an effect on state legislators ordinarily immune from accountability. Squeezed taxpayers are already looking askance at incumbents, as we saw with Mayor Bloomberg’s bare victory last November and upsets in those contests for county executive in Nassau and Westchester.

Similarly, the statewide senatorial contests will feel the impact of upstate congressional races in which Democrats, holding seats first won in 2006 and 2008, are forced to defend the increased taxes sure to accompany whatever health-care bill becomes law. And though Bloomberg and Paterson will no doubt wrangle over what is sure to be a decline in state aid for Gotham, they are united in their criticism of how Senators Schumer and Gillibrand have allowed New York to be shortchanged in the Senate’s version of the health-care bill. Paterson, who has had his frictions with the Obama administration, has explicitly reopened the issue of state-federal relations long raised by former Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Moynihan observed that federal funding formulas systematically gave New York the short end of the stick—and as Paterson points out, that hasn’t changed with Obama in the White House.

Here in Gotham, Bloomberg has governed in large part by running up an enormous debt to purchase political support. But he’ll suffer a decline in his purchasing power just as the Working Families Party, already a power in Albany, seeks to assert its might in the five boroughs. Tensions between Bloomberg and the DeBlasio-aligned WFP—whose key backer, the Service Employees International Union, is the architect of Obama’s health-care ideas—will play a big role in the mayor’s third term.

Surprises aside—and there are sure to be more—2010 is shaping up as a year to remember in American politics.

Fred Siegel is a visiting professor at St. Francis College and a contributing editor of City Journal.

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