Running Away to the Amphitheater

I've lost track of the number of times events in the New York Senate have been compared to a circus, and I have to object. ...
June 25, 2009

I've lost track of the number of times events in the New York Senate have been compared to a circus, and I have to object. I've written about circuses off and on over the years and spent some time following them, and in general you can't find a more disciplined, hard-working, trustworthy and thoroughly admirable group of people.

This, I think it's safe to say, is not the case in the New York Senate, which has reporters in Albany straining for new ways of saying "cockamamie." Now we've got the Senate Democrats wondering whether Tuesday's imbroglio of a special session was just a Machiavellian plot by the Democratic governor to help himself by making them look bad.

I like to think of the whole thing as a Greek tragedy reinterpreted by the Three Stooges but using a screenplay by David Mamet.

There's a "fatal flaw" at the heart of what's been happening in the Senate--or, to be more precise, two of them. Remember that the Democrats took over after the November elections gave them their first majority since a brief period in the 1960s and their first overall control of state government since the Great Depression. That's a very long time in the wilderness.

So if you were a talented and ambitious Democrat who was interested in public office sometime between the 1930s and 2008, how likely was it that you'd run for a seat in a body where not only did you seem doomed to permanent minority status, but all the real decisions were made by one guy: the Republican leader? With some exceptions, the question answers itself. So let's just say that the Democrats who took over the Senate majority back in January did not, as a whole, represent the cream of American state legislative ability.

And then, it seems pretty clear they underestimated how hard it actually is to govern. After last year's elections, both Governor David Paterson and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver quietly detailed aides to help the Senate Democrats figure out the mechanics: how to put together a legislative calendar, what it takes to move legislation, how to run day-to-day operations, how to build the capacity to turn ideas into law. But even so, the new majority seemed unwilling to do what it took to run a closely divided chamber in which they held a narrow, fickle and restive majority: They never found a way to keep their own people happy without giving in to extortionists, and they continually ticked off the minority with pointless power games.

It's a mug's game to try to figure out what's going to happen next. But surely it's not a good thing that the current imbroglio has accomplished something that once seemed impossible: making New York's dysfunctional "three men in a room" tradition seem like a model of enlightened governance.