Throughout his political career, whenever anyone called him a liberal, Ed Koch would always respond: “Yes, I’m a liberal, but with sanity.” The eventual mayor of New York City first demonstrated that sanity in the Democratic Party reform movement of the early 1960s, when a group of prestigious New Yorkers led by former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt and Senator Herbert Lehman booted the party regulars—the so-called “machine politicians” who had dominated the Democratic Party for decades—from power. As a young soldier in that movement, Koch ousted the head of Tammany Hall, Carmine DeSapio, from his position as Democratic district leader in Greenwich Village in a party primary.
Now, some 45 years later, Koch is calling for another reform movement, another injection of sanity into New York politics. In a recent radio commentary, Koch declared what most New Yorkers already know: their state government has become a laughingstock. In the last year and a half, the state’s two top elected officials, Governor Eliot Spitzer and Comptroller Alan Hevesi, were forced to resign. Meanwhile, the highest-ranking Republican in Albany, Joe Bruno, is retiring under the pressure of a federal investigation, while his Democratic counterpart, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, remains in thrall to special interests ranging from the trial bar to public-sector unions.
Facing this dismal scene, and in an attempt to dislodge the party regulars, Koch is calling for a new third party to run against both the Democratic and Republican machines that dominate Albany. He envisions such a party led by a small group of reform-minded New Yorkers of sufficient reputation to match the status of Roosevelt and Lehman in their day. Only such a noteworthy, nonpartisan group, bent on restoring democracy to the Empire State, could hope to garner enough attention to overcome the two major parties’ enormous and entrenched electoral advantage. It’s a quixotic idea, for sure. But to anyone who has watched the Democrats and Republicans thwart previous reform efforts—even as polls show that New Yorkers scorn their own government—it may be no more unrealistic than trying to change the two parties from within.
Koch knows that the entrenched interests that currently rule the state grew, ironically, out of the reform movement that he helped spark decades ago. One of that movement’s leaders, New York City mayor Robert Wagner, had turned to government employees as allies in his battle against the political machine. In return for their support, Wagner began granting them the right to organize into unions that could collectively bargain for benefits. Most political leaders had opposed public-sector unions in the past, reasoning that unlike the private sector—where unions might show some restraint, since demanding too much would price themselves and their companies out of business—government was a monopoly not subject to marketplace pressures.
Now granted the power of political organizations, the public-sector unions soon undermined the very reform movement that they helped spawn, becoming the 800-pound gorillas of state and local government. They used their organization to drive spending on pensions, salaries, and benefits and to punish politicians who dared defy them.
When the reform movement defeated the political machine, it left a power vacuum at the neighborhood level, where previously the clubs and district offices of groups like Tammany Hall had controlled politics—and had often delivered local services to residents. As Daniel Patrick Moynihan noted in a Commentary article at the time, “liberals are not neighborhood people.” The reformers didn’t replace the old clubs with new ones that served local interests. Into that void stepped a new kind of power, unanticipated at the time, but unleashed by the Johnson administration’s federal War on Poverty: the government-funded neighborhood activist or community organizer. The social-service groups formed by the activists became the voice of the people in many neighborhoods—and their leaders became politically powerful because they could deliver votes the way that a Tammany Hall district leader once did.
Soon, cadres of politicians in the state legislature and city councils owed their elections to the foot soldiers and organizational savvy of public-sector unions and government-funded social-service activists. It’s no surprise that the government these politicians have given us has been spendthrift and ineffective—constantly expanding salaries and pay for government workers, heavily funding social programs of dubious value that rarely seem to solve the problems they’re designed to address, and ensuring that other social programs, like Medicaid, are far more expansive and costly in New York than elsewhere. The consequence has been bad and expensive government, a double whammy for New Yorkers.
When you understand the roots of today’s dysfunction, you appreciate why it’s been so difficult to reform state politics, and why Koch’s idealistic vision of a new party born of reform-minded pols is appealing. To be successful, though, such a party would have to steer clear of issues that inevitably divide bipartisan coalitions, including social issues like abortion, and focus instead on reforming the mechanics of government to make it more democratic. That would mean ending the legislature’s control of redistricting and putting the power to draw political boundaries in the hands of nonpartisan panels, as other states have done. It would mean passing property-tax reform that offered some formula to control state spending, as well as reforms that prohibited politicians from making end runs around voters in order to put the state more heavily into debt. It would also mean limiting politicians’ ability to use the budgets of state authorities and agencies to pile up earmarks and award noncompetitive contracts to favored groups.
Who would join Koch in such a coalition? Among active politicians, there aren’t many who have fought the state’s new political machines and have the credibility or name recognition to form a party. On the Democratic side, one thinks of Nassau County executive Tom Suozzi, who unsuccessfully challenged Spitzer in the Democratic gubernatorial primary and recently headed up the commission studying property-tax reform. Attorney General Andrew Cuomo has also shown a streak of independence early in his tenure as the state’s top lawyer. On the Republican side, there is, of course, former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, who battled often (and occasionally successfully) with the special interests that not only rule Albany but also hold enormous power in New York City. John Faso, who ran unsuccessfully against both Hevesi in 2002 and Spitzer in 2006, has always been a voice of sanity in Albany. Among independents, current New York mayor Michael Bloomberg’s technocratic, businesslike approach to government would also fit well.
Of course, Giuliani and Koch have warred nastily in the past. Cuomo and Suozzi probably see Spitzer’s resignation as an opportunity for each of them to run for governor, which would hardly motivate them to undermine the Democratic Party. And there aren’t a lot of other choices in the state. It’s hard to imagine, for instance, that New York’s U.S. senators, who hold such power in Washington by virtue of their party position, would be eager to give up their Democratic affiliation and bolt to a new party.
In other words, Koch’s idea is impractical, unrealistic, and unworkable. And given the mess that is New York politics, it may still be the state’s best hope.