Running unopposed devotes energy to passage of constitutional amendments
By Kevin E. Foley
Assemblywoman Sandy Galef is the most lighthearted of candidates running for re-election this year. The 11-term Democratic incumbent has no opposition as she seeks to return to Albany to represent a district that runs along the Hudson River from Ossining in Westchester north to Philipstown. She acknowledged that the situation makes for an easier than usual fall election season without the pressure of debates and constant campaigning. But she also observed ruefully with the absence of a challenger “the issues are not discussed.”
Known throughout her district as an active presence with a consistent interest in holding issue-oriented public forums; Galef is not resting on her laurels. Two state constitutional amendments on the Nov. 4 ballot have her out campaigning along with Assembly colleagues and public interest groups for “yes” votes.
For about a dozen years Galef has championed the idea that the state legislature could dispense with the constitutional requirement that all proposed laws, there were 18,000 during the 2014 session, be printed and delivered to legislators’ desks. In 2014, with the ubiquity of digital devices, this idea might seem to many more than overdue. But over the years through many discussions, Galef said, there was considerable resistance.
“Members were concerned about historic tradition, they didn’t want to see the chamber lose it with the introduction of electronic devices,” she said. But she believes most members have reconciled themselves to the necessity of the change. Having achieved passage through two different legislative sessions the matter now only needs voter approval.
If Proposal 2 is approved, bills will come to legislators through a special digital network eliminating the need for tens of thousands of printed pages and the need for collection and recycling. Legislators who prefer printed editions will still be able to obtain them.
Drawing district lines
The far more controversial and consequential proposition Galef is supporting would create a new state procedure for drawing the geographic boundaries for state and federal legislative districts in the aftermath of the federal census held every 10 years. Proposal 1 has divided the reform minded community. The League of Women Voters and Citizens Union are supporting it while other noteworthy groups oppose it.
The ultimate goal of the new amendment is to prevent or at least discourage the political manipulation often called gerrymandering in the creation of districts. The many critics of the current practice which has the majority party in each legislative house drawing the lines, say this is how majority parties maintain their hold on power over decades.
They say the existing lines, which can twist and turn through and around contiguous communities, often have no other rationale than the inclusion of like-minded voters who support the incumbent or at least his or her political party. “Everybody protects themselves,” said Galef referring to her legislative colleagues.
The constitutional amendment would create a 10-member redistricting commission appointed largely by legislative leaders of both parties, it would through a process of public hearings and deliberations create district lines subject to the approval of the state legislature. And, Galef stressed, for the first time the new state law would establish principles to follow for drawing lines, providing courts with a basis to review challenges.
Among the standards would be creating districts of equal population, districts that are compact as possible and contiguous or directly connected with each other. The rights of racial and language minority groups have to be also taken into consideration.
Admitting the ballot initiative is subject to criticism for not going far enough toward a really independent process Galef said: “The question is do you wait until a perfect law comes along or do you make changes that are better than what you have today?” She said with the process more open the public and media will provide a stronger protection against the state legislature continuing to manipulate the process. “It will be hard for the legislature to replace what the commission creates with their own plan,” Galef said.
Although it was passed overwhelmingly under pressure from Governor Andrew Cuomo who resisted signing the legislature’s 2012 redistricting plan without a reform measure for the future, some, including local State Senator Terry Gipson, voted against it. Influential editorial boards, The New York Times (NYT) and the Albany Times Union among them, have also urged voters to say no to a change the NYT called “a counterfeit reform… that would only make matters worse and make it harder to clean up the whole inbred process for years to come.”
The NYT and some public interest groups, such as Common Cause/NY and the New York Public Interest Research Group, point out that it will take another constitutional amendment to make corrections in what they believe will be an inevitably flawed system.
Sponsored by the leaders of both legislative houses, Sheldon Silver, Democratic assembly speaker and Dean Skelos, Republican Senate majority leader, the ballot proposition hasn’t received the kind of full-throated, well-financed support the political parties are engaging in to protect their current power base.
For Galef and others an opportunity to achieve some reform and more public participation will be lost for years to come if voters reject this proposal. “I don’t see how people think it could be worse than what we have. We [legislators] do it ourselves now. The minority parties in both houses have nothing to say… we can improve upon it in the future,” said Galef.