Who is Legislator X?

Close your eyes, and think about the mess in Albany.

Now open your eyes. Sorry, the mess is still there! But now I want you to do something else. I want you to — quick, right this instant, don’t think about it too much — think of the names of five Albany legislators you know of who you think are, or will be at, the forefront of current or future reform efforts.

Okay. Once you’ve done that, you can click “More” and read the rest of this post.

While Eliot Spitzer still tries to shake off bad public vibes over the Cuomo report, while Joe Bruno gloats even as the FBI sniffs outside his chamber door, while the Daily News and the Post and the Times Union all dish the latest dirt on which Albany personalities are up and which are down, normal New Yorkers who think about these things are wanting to do something about reform more than ever.

People who want to do something about Albany generally understand what the problem is quite well — the chain of command, the mechanism of influence, and how the system sustains itself. And the instinct is to want to find a “weak link” by sniffing out someone who is corrupt, or a figurehead who needs to be removed. The problem is, finding out who is corrupt doesn’t seem to do anything to erode the basic workings of the system. Send a corrupt legislator to jail, and someone equally uninspiring takes his or her place. Depose a majority leader, and a new and equally ossified majority leader springs up to take his place, like a Hydra’s head. Impeaching a governor may seem appealing to some, but isn’t likely to happen. And full-frontal attacks (“Vote ’em all out”) have proven dismally unsuccessful.

I sometimes think we’re looking for the wrong guys. Maybe we need to be looking for Legislator X.

I offer the idea that the investigative power of the citizenry ought to not be (solely) directed toward identifying the crooks and miscreants, but should instead be directed at the identification of legislators who are most likely to do something in the future that throws a wrench in the system’s internal workings. Not someone who deliberately smashes the system; just someone with the potential to mess it up.

Albany isn’t a monolith, but rather a sort of system of nesting interests, kind of like concentric circles. And it’s not a closed system where the people are stuck on the outside; maybe you could look at it as a closed system with the citizens of New York trapped in the center of it. Think of each successive level of power clustered around the Albany system — the Three Men in a Room, the committee chairs, the rank and file legislators, the party hacks, the government functionaries, the lobbyists, the donors, the elite journalists (don’t forget them), yes, even the bloggers — as individual layers of surrounding shell. All of them have varying amounts of unfettered access to the citizens — their monies, their attention, their passions, their energy, their votes — but the citizens stuck on the inside of this strange arrangement mostly have a much more limited ability to reach them. There’s not much room for the people to move, to “take back” their government. To “take back” their government means to somehow get themselves out of the airless center of the arrangement, so that they can be on the outside of it and have the ultimate controlling influence. But there are so many of these different layers in the way, ossified in ways they should not be.

This isn’t a perfect analogy — I hope I’m not being obtuse. The assumption that citizens are frozen out of bad government appears to be wrong to me. (We’re frozen inside it.) And so does the assumption that all we have to do is “vote everyone out” at once. Or even vote anyone out at all. What if the only way you could get out of this monstrous concrete egg is by pecking? And perhaps by carefully plotted tapping. What if you pecked in just the right spot (or spots) that would begin a structural failure in one or more of the levels of the shell?

If there are concentric levels of power surrounding the citizens in this unfortunate situation, obviously these levels of power are made up of individual people: legislators, justices, government employees, journalists… all “tappable,” but not necessarily the ones you ought to be pecking at. Why not peck at the one most likely to give way: Legislator X? (Or Journalist X? Or Justice X?)

Well, first you have to identify these very rare individuals. And it is not easy.

The difficulty of identifying these persons is that almost invariably, they are people you wouldn’t expect to respond in ways that are disruptive to the current order and are good for reform. When such an individual appears on the scene as an effective player in a true reform situation, what is interesting is that they are usually the last person you might have pegged as a potential reformer. They have good standing in their circle, and a substantial track record which, upon examination, does not appear to identify them as someone with a compelling interest in reform. Their motives for standing in the way of the machinery of corruption are usually highly personal — and they are almost invariably surprised, even naively so, about the resistance their actions provoke. In other words, they do not see themselves as reformers and do not set out to reform. They are decidedly not whistleblowers. But it is their behavior, in a critical hour, that allows reform to happen.

So it is difficult to profile Legislator X. It is almost easier to profile the people who are not Legislator X. It is safe to rule out most self-styled reformers (even if they have done very good and vocal work in the cause that lays groundwork for reform). Richard Brodsky, for example, is very likely not Legislator X. Not because he doesn’t care about good government (or at least, a strong Legislature). Neither is David Valesky — he hasn’t been around long enough and that almost automatically rules him out. In fact, the five people you immediately thought of as potential reformers? Cross them off. Chances are high that none of them are the one. The trick to identifying Legislator X is to think of someone you haven’t thought of for years. Or that you never thought of.

To be quite honest, I don’t know if it is possible to identify this person (or persons) before they reveal themselves. I don’t know if you can answer the question of “Who will be the one(s)?” But I’ve seen these people step up in other situations I’ve known, and I am always amazed to find out who is the real chink in the bad system’s armor. All I know is that if you tap in the right spot, they announce themselves with a small crack. And they very often seem to fit the description given above.

It could be that the best that citizens stuck in Albany’s vault can hope to do is to simply embark on a program of strategic tapping and listening. But I have seen this scenario unfold enough times to make me wonder if you can get more hints about where the initial break comes from. And it could be that you could work on several levels at a time. Perhaps there is a Judge X and a Newspaper X. I do feel strongly that the scattershot, broad approach to reform may not be the most efficient or even the most successful. Perhaps it is still a good idea to scream loudly and push in traditional ways, for campaign finance reform and an end to gerrymandering — maybe it would be pretty foolish to abandon the broad push, because it can only help. But what if reform doesn’t happen, so much as hatch?

6 thoughts on “Who is Legislator X?

  1. Simon St.Laurent

    I closed my eyes, and couldn’t think of anyone. I ruled out the usual suspects for the reasons you give.

    While I agree that Albany isn’t a monolith, it is certainly a well-defended maze, with intricate corridors designed to absorb newcomers into its own systems.

    My candidate for “Legislator X” isn’t likely to be anyone who’s there today – it has to be someone from the majority party in either house who refuses to be absorbed, and spends their career as a thorn in the side of the Albany system, talking publicly about what they’re doing. That doesn’t mean they have to grab cameras or make a lot of speeches, but it does mean they have to stay independent and make clear what happens and why.

    It’s a hard thing to ask for, sending someone to the legislature with an agenda that ensures they’ll be powerless. I don’t know anyone who’s excited about doing that, and unfortunately I don’t have the time, right now at least.

    We’ll see…

    (The other option is for interesting things to happen in an interregnum, as it’s clear that one party or the other has lost their house. I can’t think of any Republican State Senators who’d step up to the opportunity, but they might at least change the system out of pure self-interest.)

  2. Taylor Made

    NYCO,

    I think that Legislator X can only come into existence once we have term limits. It is the only way to put an end to the dysfunctional set of relationships that currently exist in Albany.

  3. Simon St.Laurent

    Sorry, Ellen – I can’t buy that premise.

    It is possible that Legislator X exists in hiding, willing to emerge when circumstances make it safe – but I think the Legislature’s defensive mechanisms are built to ensure precisely that it’s never safe.

    (I suspect there are several legislators like that, though I don’t think my own is one of them.)

    Absorb, absorb, absorb – and drain.

  4. Robinia

    Hmmm. My guess is Assemblyman Clifford Crouch. Does not fit any of the above commenters’ criteria, but, is strangely interested in actually, honestly, listening to people. And working with people (regular people, as, being a Republican in the Assembly, he has next to no power in the structure) to accomplish things.

    He went to Silda Spitzer’s “I Live NY” event last week– only legistlator I saw there, and not who you would necessarily expect to see. I often see him at events where there are no or few other legislators. Made a point of coming over to talk with me at the Cortland event. Not a flaming reformer, by a long stretch, but not a partisan hack, either.

    I love the analogy of pecking our way out of the egg– suspect it will return to me every time I am in The Egg now (as, generally, when there, I am wishing I weren’t…)

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