Monday, September 13, 2010

Election preview: why the race in the 18th Senatorial District is no inspiring example of democratic debate

I can't say the 18th Senatorial District race between 26-year incumbent Velmanette Montgomery and challenger Mark Pollard has been a particularly inspiring example of democracy.

While the candidates have been out campaigning, the main contact many of us have with this race is by receiving propaganda in the mail.

No debate

There hasn't even been a debate, or a consecutive appearance in front of reporters (other than a brief appearance reported by City Hall News). Pollard didn't press for a debate, so far as I can tell, and the press didn't push either.

In the 52nd Assembly District, challenger Doug Biviano got the Brooklyn Paper to sponsor a debate, which made for some sparks. Heck, even incumbent 10th District Rep. Ed Towns and second-time challenger Kevin Powell appeared consecutively the other day on the Brian Lehrer Show.

(Would you believe that Towns, when asked about legislation for which he'd been the driving force, cited a "right to know" bill that ensures that student-athletes know about the graduation rates at prospective colleges? Powell thought that inappropriate in the age of foreclosures.)

Funding

Pollard's relies mainly on funding from out-of-Brooklyn hedge fund types who support charter schools. He could have started earlier to build a broader base. Still, as the New York Times--which put the charter school aspect of the race, rather than anything else, on the front page Saturday--and other have reported, they came to him, not vice versa.

Most but not all of Montgomery's funding comes from unions and political action committees. So, while she admirably leads on public interest-oriented legislation like ensuring that pregnant inmates are no longer shackled, she likely doesn't make waves on some other issues.

But that's a critique an opponent should make.

(Consider that, in her 11-day pre-primary report, Montgomery got less than $5000 from individuals but $5000 alone from the beer wholesalers. And why'd she get $1000 from the Rochester-based CEO of Wegman's supermarkets?)

This reliance on special interests could be reduced if the state, like the city, offered campaigns public matching funds. Yes, as we saw in some City Council races last year, such matching funds gave megaphones to mediocrities, but they also meant more potential candidates see themselves as viable, and the races were somewhat more competitive.

Montgomery, actually, is less enmeshed than most of her colleagues. She's one of the few (only?) incumbents who hasn't received direct support from the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee.

Yesterday, at a panel on state and local politics at the Brooklyn Book Festival, I asked whether the panelists supported public funding of elections. They pretty much agreed.

But they looked askance at term limits.

OK, but if there are no term limits, then there should be reforms--such as public funding and Instant Runoff Voting (which allows voters to rank candidates)--that allow viable challenges.

Member items

Shouldn't any political race include a discussion of how the elected official spends member items?

As it happens, Montgomery's spending (here's 2009-10) doesn't raise red flags the way, say, that of Brooklyn Democratic Party Chairman Vito Lopez's spending does.

But a challenger should at least have a critique and potential alternative.

Mailers for Montgomery

As the vote got closer, the advertisements got more questionable. I got several mailings on behalf of Montgomery, but only one from her campaign committee, the 18th Friends of Velmanette Montgomery.

The others, in the "Very, Very Velmanette" series were unattributed. And the Atlantic Yards mailer, above and below, is partly accurate and partly a lie.

Yes, Montgomery represented those opposed to or dismayed by the project. But has she "fought to get concessions like more affordable housing and local jobs"? No, and that's not the issue. The issue for AY-supporting elected officials is not more housing/jobs but whether the announced goals would even be met.

We should also consider the irony of using the Williamsburgh Savings Bank as an expression of "community."

Yes, Atlantic Yards opponents wanted Forest City Ratner to meet its pledge to leave the iconic clock tower visible. (It didn't.) But that building has been turned into luxury housing, while Atlantic Yards--its developers will remind us--is supposed to have 900 units of low-income housing.

But those aspects aren't the most disturbing part of this ad campaign. The disturbing element is--get this--Montgomery's campaign told me they didn't know who was responsible for the "Very, Very Velmanette" mailer.

Either they should know, or the law should make sure we do know.

Actually, the mailers did have a tiny logo (click on graphics to enlarge), but it's illegible. I have no idea whether this is merely a printer's label or an attribution to an interest group.

Which interest group? I searched around the finance reports for some unions and organizations that support Montgomery and couldn't figure it out.

Mailers for Pollard

Would you believe that Pollard's ad campaign makes Montgomery look like an emissary from Common Cause?

After sending an introductory mailer, arguing that the district deserves change, and setting out his priorities (but not mentioning the charter schools issue), Pollard last week got a little sleazy.

PollardvsVM

The cover of the mailer assails Montgomery as a product of the past--fair game, though tacky art direction--but then claims that she "has become so far removed from common sense..."

The interior lists several Montgomery votes on crime-related bills that are supposed to shock the conscience.

There are legitimate explanations for each vote, a Montgomery campaign staffer assured me.

More importantly, I figure that if organizations interested in the protection of children really think Montgomery was letting them down--as opposed to her work on child and day care issues--they'd make a stink about it.

Endorsements

On a Primary Day with little reason for many people to vote--are they excited about the five-way Attorney General primary?--the result likely depends on turnout.

Daily News columnist Errol Louis astutely observed yesterday that ground-level organization trumps high-minded endorsements.

And Montgomery, though she lacks endorsements from newspapers and reform-Albany groups, has an array of endorsements from unions and political clubs, all of whom can get the vote out, not to mention some big names. (I got a robo-call from former Comptroller Bill Thompson on her behalf yesterday.)

The newspapers and reform

The Daily News, citing the litmus test from Ed Koch's New York Uprising, in an editorial called Montgomery an Enemy of Reform and Pollard a Hero of Reform.

Louis, however, cited Assemblyman Jeff Aubry of Queens and suggested that "a number of honest, reform-minded pols who declined to sign for principled reasons don't deserve to be condemned as Enemies of Reform, as Koch has done."

Room 8 blogger Gatemouth commented:

First, issues, before they come to a vote, are often more complicated than “yes” or “no.” Few Assembly members have been more committed to process reform than Jim Brennan, but Jim Brennan refuses to sign Koch’s pledge.

Does this really make him an enemy of reform? Does it really make Pedro Espada a “hero” for signing it.

Montgomery's campaign has pointed out Brennan's unwillingness to sign the pledge. Also, the campaign states:
Redistricting reform is long overdue! Senator Montgomery has long said that if there had been a fair and independent process for drawing legislative districts, the Democrats would have controlled the Senate by the year 2000. (FYI, the majority party redraws the lines under the current system, and while upstate counties seem to have some geographic coherence, the Republican Majority went to absurd lengths to cobble together districts to enhance their elections chances.) The formation of a redistricting process that ensures fairness and accountability, and that does not devolve into some level of "shadow government" is as complicated as it is necessary. Senator Montgomery shares the concerns the Brennan Center voiced in an April letter to Mayor Koch (which has never gotten a public response) concerning the difficulties in getting this exactly right, and she is committed to ensuring its development.
The Post seems to be sitting out this race. The Times opposed most incumbents, but mentioned few by name, such as Shirley Huntley of Queens. Tom Robbins of the Village Voice offered some contrast:
Montgomery is the polar opposite of the mouthy Huntley. She's been quietly plugging away since 1986 on women's and criminal justice issues in the legislature, work that finally started to pay off when the Democrats won a majority. Her apparent offense to the charter backers is that she piped up with a few questions at the legislative hearing chaired by Perkins in late April.

3 comments:

  1. The smears were pretty low. Here's the particulars on how cheap and wrong they were.

    POLLARD SMEAR ATTEMPT #1 “Senate Bill 6418A: Making it a crime to cause the death of a person by the sale of a controlled substance.” (2010)
    REBUTTAL Mr. Pollard doesn’t mention that the bill only addresses one controlled substance: heroin. Not that being less specific would have improved the bill…
    This bill was a double stinker.
    1. It’s based on the misconception that increasing the penalties for drug use and sale actually acts as a deterrent. It has been solidly proven that beyond a much lower threshold this is not the case. It is Rockefeller Drug Law thinking. The bill was opposed by the NY Civil Liberties Union and the Drug Policy Alliance on that basis.
    2. It already IS a crime to cause the death of anyone by any means! This is the kind of grandstanding duplicative legislation the 2004 Brennan Center report roasted NYS on, and the Senator is very careful not to support this sort of bad legislation. Not only is it duplicative but it burdens the courts and sometimes creates loopholes in existing laws.

    POLLARD SMEAR ATTEMPT #2 “Senate Bill 1862: Establishing the crime of facilitating a sexual performance by a child with a controlled substance or alcohol.” (2008)
    REBUTTAL Again, a totally duplicative law. It’s already criminal to offer a minor alcohol or a controlled sustance for ANY reason, and of course sexual performance by a minor (kiddy porn) is a high crime. This bill adds nothing but deadweight to the legal system and may, in the hands of a clever defense attorney, offer a loophole in pleading for clemency before a jury. “At least I didn’t use alcohol…!” Stranger pleas have been made because of deadwood like this.

    POLLARD SMEAR ATTEMPT #3 “Senate Bill 1687: Prohibitting a sex offender from being granted unsupervised visitation with a child.” (2010)
    REBUTTAL: This bill never made it out of Committee. It is also grossly simplified and mischaracterized by Pollard. The bill didn’t just address visitation, it forbade custody of children by a sex offender. The definition of sex offender is distressingly broad and many times does not focus on children. This bill would have unnecessarily required the breaking up of families. If a man (or woman) is convicted of hiring a prostitute they are technically a sex offender: under this bill anyone so labelled would lose custody of their children. Can you say “Elliott Spitzer?”

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  2. POLLARD SMEAR ATTEMPT #4 “Senate Bill 406: Increasing penalties for those convicted of sex crimes where the victim is less than eleven years old.” (2009)
    REBUTTAL: This bill never made it out of committee. No credible evidence was presented that passage of the bill (which merely increases penalties for already existing violations of the criminal code) would do anything to deter the offenses or make children safer in any way. And the provisions stipulated would have been enormously expensive.
    In addition it would have limited a judge’s discretion in sentencing. Any judge can increase penalties with good cause unless restricted by legislation: this sort of bill would require actions that may not be indicated and preclude other actions by a judge. The Senator routinely opposes bills that limit judicial sentencing discretion, like the Rockefeller Drug Laws. It’s somewhat surprising that a supposed defense attorney like Mr. Pollard would argue against judicial discretion…

    POLLARD SMEAR ATTEMPT #5 “Senate Bill 6259: Requiring transfer of campaign funds to the state treasury or a charitable organization upon the death of an elected official” (2010)
    REBUTTAL: The Senator argued that the funds should first be returned to the people who donated to the campaign, or that the donors should be part of the discretionary decisions.

    POLLARD SMEAR ATTEMPT #6 “Senate Bill 1319B: Mandating life imprisonment without parole for a conviction of a murder committed in the course of a sex crime where the victim is less than fourteen years old.” (2004)
    REBUTTAL: Again, a grandstanding duplicative bill. “Joan’s Law.” Murder during a sex crime is mandatory life sentence regardless of age. There were other technical problems with the bill, which BTW the Assembly never passed.

    POLLARD SMEAR ATTEMPT #7 “Senate Bill 3479A: Providing that assaults against MTA employees be classified as criminal assaults.” (2003) REBUTTAL: This bill also contained a curious removal of the publication requirement advertising the higher penalty, which might have acted as a deterrent. Instead, it was fashioned as a “gotcha” law for prosecutors. So, no deterrence, more prosecution. Hard to defend that and again, a possible loophole for a clever defense attorney.

    Smears. Slimy and desperate. And such a good use of Charter School money!

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