During the summer of 2009, the mood in Albany was grim.
In 2008, Democratic Gov. Eliot Spitzer had resigned after federal investigators caught him visiting high-end prostitutes. His successor, Democrat David Paterson, committed a series of miscues and found himself with approval ratings in the 20s. Equally problematic, New York University Law School's Brennan Center for Justice had issued scathing reports that described the Legislature's faulty and opaque procedures, including detailing committees that barely met, the body's measly oversight of the executive branch and uncompleted fiscal impact statements.
The situation in Albany got even grimmer when the Democrats -- who had snatched the state Senate from the Republicans in the 2008 election -- lost control when members of their own party switched sides. This eventually produced a tie, and the resulting power struggle turned the chamber into a national laughingstock, as the two party caucuses behaved in a less-than-decorous manner.
As the Los Angeles Times recorded, the two sides "huffed over which party should lead members in the Pledge of Allegiance and fought about whether a Republican lawmaker crossing the chamber to fetch a drink should have counted toward a quorum, allowing Democrats to pass more than 100 'noncontroversial' bills, which the state Assembly refuses to recognize."
Further muddying the Legislature's image, the two lawmakers most aggressively courted by both sides in the power struggle had ethical problems -- one was under indictment on felony charges of stabbing his girlfriend with a broken glass, while the other had been fined in the tens of thousands of dollars for failing to disclose political contributions.
All this came amid serious challenges for the state, ranging from a brutal recession to the lapsing of various authorities wielded by local governments, including New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg's power over the city's school system.
Around the height of that circus-like atmosphere, I wrote an article that dubbed New York state government the nation's most dysfunctional, edging out out Nevada and Illinois. (The Brennan Center was the first to use the word "dysfunctional," but my ranking attracted some media attention too.)
I recently returned to Albany for the first time in more than two and a half years. I wanted to see whether the funk had receded. What I found was a more orderly Legislature, which everyone credited to Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
Cuomo, elected in 2010 with more than 61 percent of the vote, put together a string of legislative victories during his first 10 months in office, including an on-time budget, local property tax caps, an ethics overhaul and a same-sex marriage law.
"In a year when Congress and Washington seems paralyzed, he seems to have gotten the legislative process going again," said Dan Weiller, managing director of Albany-based PLACommunications and a former press secretary to Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver. "By contrast, he looks really good."
Blair Horner, the vice president for advocacy with the American Cancer Society of New York and New Jersey, calls Cuomo "the steamroller that runs quietly. ... If you measure political capital by political success, he's had a very successful first year."
Observers in Albany said Cuomo has benefited from the contrast with his two predecessors. Spitzer was "irrationally confrontational" and selected his issues poorly, said Gerald Benjamin, a political scientist at the State University of New York-New Paltz. While Paterson, who "in the end did the right thing on a few big things," was not respected.
Cuomo himself assembled a reputation for prickliness and arrogance early on in his career as attorney general. But since then, the son of former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo has been "loved publicly more than expected or predicted, consistently so, and he's been able to leverage that," Benjamin said. "He's been very disciplined and on message. He thinks far ahead, and is smart on both politics and policy."
PLACommunications' Weiller added that Cuomo has developed a better relationship with the Legislature than his two predecessors, despite the state Senate flipping back to Republican control in 2010. "The negativity [Spitzer and Paterson] brought into their relationship with the Legislature really contributed to the inability to get a lot done," Weiller said.
As a result, Cuomo took a different tack. The New York Times reported that "after riding to victory on a wave of public revulsion against state lawmakers, Mr. Cuomo courted them like kings. He spent most of his nights at the Executive Mansion, where he hosted groups of lawmakers for frequent wine-and-buffet dinners, regaling them with stories, offering unsolicited political advice and preaching his platform."
Yet despite Cuomo's success at improving Albany's dysfunctional image, it remains unclear whether its long-accumulated ethics stain will fully recede. In August, Cuomo signed an omnibus ethics bill that included enhanced financial disclosure statements, a new lobbying-contacts database, the forfeiture of pensions for public officials convicted of a felony and increased penalties for violations. The linchpin of these efforts is a new Joint Commission on Public Ethics.
But clean-government advocates are disappointed to see the new commission starting slowly. While it's supposed to be up and running on or before Dec. 12, 2011, key appointments still have not been made, casting doubt on how effective it could be.
"They've waited too long to make appointments -- it doesn't make a difference who they are at this point," said David Grandeau, the former executive director of the state's lobbying regulatory body and now an outspoken blogger who The Wall Street Journal recently dubbed "the statehouse's unofficial, uncensored gadfly and online agitator."
Others agree with Grandeau, though less stridently. "In any human endeavor, you will have crooks and heroes," Horner said. "Where I agree with David is that we have inadequate policing. I hope the new structure will work."
Some of the other legislative procedures used this past year were actually less transparent than in the past, observers say. Negotiations for key provisions were done in secret, for instance, with items like Medicaid and prison cuts done through task forces that were even more secretive than Albany is used to.
Meanwhile, other impediments stand in the way of an improved reputation for New York state government, including the thornier issues of campaign finance, redistricting and election reform.
"They like the way they get elected, and God forbid they change that," said Barbara Bartoletti, legislative director for the League of Women Voters of New York State. She described the likelihood of passing legislation on election laws and campaign finance next year "almost impossible."
Of course, it remains to be seen whether ethics -- or election law or campaign finance reform -- can once again become a source of voter discontent, the way it was in 2008. "A lot of folks are struggling to put food on the table and are just worrying about the basics of life," Weiller said. "They don't have time to engage in the details of what happens in state government."
But Cuomo carefully cultivated an image of efficiency and practicality, and for voters, that seems to have superseded a need for transparency. While obstacles loom - once-dysfunctional Albany seems to be in the midst of an era of (relatively) good feelings.
"It's out of intensive care," Benjamin said.