Last December, I made a list of what I thought were the top 10 statewide stories of the year. Last year’s list appears so undramatic compared to 2008, truly a tumultuous year in New York’s politics and economy. And most of the stories spawned other important stories, a chain of events that is far from over. The challenge this year was not finding high-impact happenings to list, but deciding what should be ranked where.
1. Wall Street implodes. “Hoocoodanode?” The failure of investment banks and hedge funds, a $50 billion Ponzi scheme, the collapse of industries directly or indirectly dependent on obscene bonuses in the financial sector… most of it had already been predicted by cannier observers who saw where mortgage failures would eventually lead, but it apparently came as a big shock to a lot of people who should have known better. And even though Gov. Paterson tried to inject a note of alarm several months before things fell apart, there’s still a great deal of whistling past the graveyard throughout New York. It’s no ordinary recession, and impacts have yet to be felt not just on Wall Street, not just in manufacturing and real estate, but in medicine and higher education (the economic engines of many Upstate New York communities). There is no telling how deep the rabbit hole goes, or what the effects might be on New York’s economic and political structures in years to come.
2. Spitzer implodes. It’s a strange year indeed when a story like his isn’t the New York story of the decade (maybe even the century). In less than seven days — I’d almost say just three — his political career was over, his law-and-order reputation in tatters, and New Yorkers, who have pretty much seen it all at this point, choked back their disbelief, raised their eyebrows and carried on. Although his first (and only) year in office was hugely disappointing, “hoocoodanode” it would have ended up like this.
3. New York’s first black governor. Paterson’s installation into office deserves its own item. A qualified and experienced politician who almost surely could never have been elected “cold,” he is, to say the least, a very interesting figure called (or doomed?) to serve in very interesting times.
4. Bruno exits. Almost as soon as Spitzer’s political body was cold, Bruno got the hell out of Dodge (with federal indictment rumored to be near – and still rumored). Not only did he knock the props out from under the Three Men in a Room, but also from under the Upstate GOP establishment, with Long Island (in the form of Dean Skelos) taking over a Senate majority that would turn out to be short-lived… (or not)…
5. Darrel Aubertine wins the 48th District. Skipping back in time to February: when the special election in the North Country gave the district to Democrats for the first time since the 19th century and heralded a decisive step in the long-cherished plan to institute one-party rule in Albany. Unlike the three-way race in the 49th district in 2004 (which David Valesky won almost by default), this was supposed to represent a sea-change for Democrats in Albany and maybe even for Upstate Democrats too.
6. Gang of Three. As Bruno exited and Democrats made gains in the Senate, three right-of-center rogue Democrats held the Senate Democrats hostage with some hardball demands, showing a great deal of disarray evident in the party. This story is still going on and it doesn’t seem clear who will be in charge of the Senate (and therefore the Legislature) in 2009.
7. New York moves in on Indian tribal commerce. Not only the upstate Haudenosaunee, but the downstate Unkechaug/Poospatuck, have come under more aggressive treatment from state and NYC authorities on the tax-free sale of cigarettes. The issue of Native taxation in New York has a very long and tangled history, but until now, New York authorities preferred to pretty much ignore the situation. Although not much of a news item in NYC, Paterson’s signing of a tax enforcement bill — and local law enforcement raids on Cayuga-owned businesses — will undoubtedly have deeper reverberations throughout Upstate communities in 2009. How serious those reverberations, is hard to tell.
8. Gay marriage debate on deck. After years of remaining on the back burner of progressive politics in New York, gay rights activists finally were poised to get the issue of gay marriage on the state agenda, only to run smack into all of the items just listed: an economic meltdown leaving politicians reluctant to commit to controversial issues, not to mention one of the members of the Gang of Three (Ruben Diaz) trying to use his opposition to gay marriage as a crucial bargaining chip in the already bizarre power struggle among the Senate Democrats. But it is unlikely that this issue will recede again as it has in past years, perhaps adding a contentious ingredient to the newly unstable atmosphere of New York politics.
9. Hillary’s empty Senate seat. Yes, She has left us, as we all knew she would… and it’s really a sign of how explosive this year has been when I can rank the jostling to fill her seat as #9 on a list of 10.
10. Container shipping coming to Oswego. After the preceding items, this one may seem absurdly prosaic, but I think of it as “the quiet story” whose impact could be felt even after 2009… or maybe even 2019. It’s the one news development I heard this year that opened a new potential window on New York’s place in world commerce (for background, see this post on “Atlantica”). It’s also the one story on this list that will probably still retain its relevance after the current economic drama has played out — not to mention the drama of all of the aforementioned political personalities.
The moral of this year’s story: History never comes neatly packaged as a single person or a single event. It is a cascade of events uncontrolled by any one force. “When it rains, it pours.”