Meet Phillip Anderson, the Albany Project

This is the second entry in what I hope to be a MyDD series I just named Hearing Progressive Voices, where I conduct interviews over instant messenger with people working at the heart of progressive politics. Last night, I typed with Phillip Anderson, a filmmaker, editor, and activist now with The Albany Project. If you were to design a political system from scratch with the goal of consolidating power in the hands of the very few, what you'd end up with might look at lot like New York's state legislature. Bills sail through both chambers unread. Empty seats are tallied as "yes" vote. Rank-and-file legislators have little agency and perhaps less accountability. In the words of one former state senator, "the system of governance in Albany is so broken that I don't believe it functions any longer as a representative democracy." The Albany Project's ambition is big -- to change the game and change the players. I spoke with Phillip about New York's "sad joke of a state government," how the roots of the problem reach back to FDR-era progressivism, and the Albany Project-plan for bringing change to the Empire State. Interview starts after the break.

Nancy Scola: The Albany Project is in its second month of life. Where did the idea for it come from?

Phillip Anderson: The idea was born during the last weeks of the last cycle. I was working on a State Senate campaign up in the Hudson Valley. Though I had always assumed I had a fairly robust knowledge of just how screwed up our state government was (and our state party, for that matter), it was a very eye-opening experience. I had no idea just how bad it really was. The day after the election, we all slept in for the first time in weeks. But by mid-afternoon, the emails had started to fly. By sundown, I had put up a Blogspot site. A few weeks later we launched the SoapBlox version.

The idea was basically that everyone loves to bitch and moan about how Albany sucks. And it does indeed suck. But very few people understand just why it sucks. We wanted to describe that dysfunction as clearly as possible, kick our own state party in the ass and eventually get into some electioneering of our own. So far, it looks like we are doing pretty well on all three counts. But our ambitions are pretty big. This really is just the beginning.


So why does Albany "suck"?

Government in New York State, and particularly the legislature, has been described by NYU's Brennan Center as "the most dysfunctional in the nation." It is by design unresponsive, unaccountable and mostly opaque. The business of government is controlled by three men -- the Governor, the Senate Majority Leader and the Speaker of the Assembly. The other 210 members of the legislature basically exist to manage constituent services. There really is no committee system to speak of. Though committees exist, they sometimes don't meet for years at a time. They don't exist to debate or markup legislation much at all. That is done behind closed doors by the infamous "three men in a room." Both chambers are also absurdly gerrymandered. This what happens when you let the legislators themselves draw their own districts. As long as you play ball with the leadership, it's basically a lifetime gig once you are elected.

Another interesting quirk of our system is that nothing ever gets defeated in a floor vote. Nothing reaches the floor that isn't assured of passage because it has been vetted by the "three men" and the caucuses know that this or that piece of legislation is what they want.

What's really interesting about how this system evolved is that it is largely a legacy of the great progressive era in New York. The consolidation of power in the leadership of both chambers was a reaction to the power amassed by a number of progressive governors (FDR and [Alfred E.] Smith come to mind). They amassed these powers to muscle through some rather amazing progressive ideas that were strongly opposed by the legislature. And 80 years later, here we are with a mess that is the one of the least progressive and accessible systems in the nation.


I was reading through that Brennan Center report earlier today. As somebody with an interest in how systems work, it's fascinating -- almost as if the legislature is a superorganism that only knows certain ways of behaving. But as a New Yorker, it's depressing, or at least discouraging. What's the Albany Project plan for changing how it works?

We want to describe as clearly as possible that dysfunction for as many people as possible. I love the Brennan Center and they do amazing work, but they suck at promoting their scholarship. Hell, one of the things we are working on right now is just turning their reports into HTML. That said, we are looking to drive media coverage of the structural problems in Albany, something we have had some success with already in only two months. The media environment is really ripe for it at the moment, now that we have a popular governor elected in a landslide on a reform platform. It also doesn't hurt that we've had a state senator indicted twice (Efrain Gonzalez, D-Bronx) in the past 6 months and the State Senate Majority Leader, arguably the most powerful Republican left in New York State, under federal investigation.

We'll be using video and end other multimedia materials (EPKs [electronic press kits], etc.) to help those members of the media understand the complexities of certain structural problems as well. Also, we are currently shopping a proposal to produce a television show that would deal with these issues weekly. "Inside Albany," a public affairs show that aired for decades, ceased production at the beginning of the year. We feel that there is a gap to be filled by a show that would, quite honestly, be a much better product. No studio, no panel, all out in the field talking to those most affected by the policies pursued (or not) by decision makers in Albany.

We are also looking to get pretty heavily involved in races in the next cycle. This is partly because of our experience last cycle. We are looking to help raise funds for candidates that embrace reform issues, and help drive volunteers as well. We may even form a PAC at some point. I'm also a huge fan of the Oregon Bus Project and we are looking to replicate that here beginning late this year. Like I said, our ambitions are pretty damn big. We are in this to advance the cause of reform in New York State and, well, we mean business.


I want to go a bit deeper on the actual mechanisms of change. Reforming the how the New York legislature works -- at least, the way bills are considered, the committee structure, floor proceedings-- could be accomplished by changes in each chamber's rules, right? To break it down to the simplest level, it seems like this is a matter of getting the public to know that they want change, and legislators willing to vote for change.

Very true. We actually launched a campaign in December called "No Reform? No Raise!" that implored the legislature to adopt new rules at the beginning of the session before they voted themselves a raise, which they desperately wanted to do. Rules changes are key and, unfortunately, they are adopted at the beginning of each new session. We won't see them revisited for two years. That said, getting legislators that are open to adopting new rules are key. Also, scaring the hell out of few will also be useful. Tomorrow morning [1/29], we are sending out letters to all 212 legislators in both chambers to ask them about how they feel about rules changes that we feel would be of benefit to the citizens of New York. We will then follow up with phone calls. And for those who still don't reply, I will be showing up at their capitol offices with a video camera. I call this the "going all Michael Moore on their asses" option.

We want to get every one of them on the record as to where they stand on rules reform. We want them to know that this is no longer an issue that no one is paying attention to. Those days are over.


Where does the state Democratic party come into play?

We and a number of other state and local blogs and grassroots organizations have put together a fundraiser for Craig Johnson, the Dem candidate for State Senate. This came about because Dave Pollak, the new co-chair of the state party, invited all of these folks to be a part of this election. The very fact that all these people were invited to participate is hugely significant, IMO.

Something is happening in the relationship between the state party and the net/grassroots that no one saw coming. It could, and stress "could", be the beginning of something pretty amazing. There has been a long history of animosity between the grassroots and the party in New York. Anything that can help build trust and goodwill between those groups could be huge in the long term.

Hell, the Governor himself asked to be a part of this thing. That's a new freakin' day if there ever was one.


[Beyond the Interview]

If you're interested in learning more about Albany, a good start is Seymour Lachman's book Three Men in a Room: The Inside Story of Power and Betrayal in an American Statehouse. Phillip says: "Wanna understand why New York is as messed up as it is? Read Lachman's book." The Albany Project will be hosting a live chat with the author on February 16th at www.thealbanyproject.com.

Tags: Hearing Progressive Voices, New York, SoapBlox, state legislatures (all tags)

Comments

21 Comments

Re: Meet Phillip Anderson, the Albany Project

Albany Project is an atom bomb in mill that is politics as usual in Albany. The are a real resource to New Yorkers.

by DMIer 2007-01-29 08:11AM | 0 recs
Re: Meet Phillip Anderson, the Albany Project

wow. you are too kind. pssst! check's in the mail...

by lipris 2007-01-29 08:33AM | 0 recs
Nicely Done!

Good work.

Great to see stuff like this at MyDD and to help better the political system all around.

It's quite true, NY is crazy gerrymandered and the balance of power is well defined and strict. Senate is republican. Assembly democrat.

There have been very few 'surprises' in the legislative body in NY.

It's time to change all that.
-- MrMacMan

by MrMacMan 2007-01-29 08:41AM | 0 recs
very nice

by John DE 2007-01-29 08:57AM | 0 recs
Re: Meet Phillip Anderson, the Albany Project

Fascinating stuff; a great primer. One point in particular I want to comment on:

I love the Brennan Center and they do amazing work, but they suck at promoting their scholarship. Hell, one of the things we are working on right now is just turning their reports into HTML.

Bam thwock, damn!

Now, I am biased here: I interviewed for a job at Brennan, and I was really excited by the opportunity to do exactly this -- help make their reports and materials more accessible for, and disseminated through, the netroots. After the interview, I sent many follow-up emails that all went unanswered... and hey, maybe I just wasn't the one to get the job done. But more than half a year later, their site is still little more than a PDF tree.

I hope their communications department gets its act together, as the Brennan Center resources could be a great contribution to the progressive web.

by greg bloom 2007-01-29 09:07AM | 0 recs
Re: Meet Phillip Anderson, the Albany Project

it really is somewhat frustrating in that they really do amazing, valuable work that is just such a pain in the ass to use sometimes. we're trying our best to bring their stuff to the masses in a much more usable form.

bam, thwock, damn indeed...

by lipris 2007-01-29 09:59AM | 0 recs
Wow!

What a fubar!

I had no idea the NY lege was so bad (or, from the viewpoint of those who control it, so good). And so close to perfection in its badness.

Now, every man's ignorance is his own responsibility. On the other hand, given NY's importance in the nation and all, I wonder that it's not something that's more widely known.

Good piece, though: telling us something we don't know. Doesn't happen often enough.

But, Jeez - Kim Jong-il could take tips...

by skeptic06 2007-01-29 10:07AM | 0 recs
Re: Ballot access for challengers

NY used to be known for having among the most arcane and thoroughly used sets of ballot access/petition rules.  "Experts" could pick off many candidates opposed to the status quo and disqualify their petitions to qualify for a primary run for a state legislative seat against an incumbent.  Is this still used to eliminate competition to incumbents and local party bosses?

A favorite was the "invalid address" where legal voters signatures were disqualified because commonly used suburban address "towns" were different from legal , rarely used township names.  People might live in, for example, Hartsdale.  Their mailing address, post office, railroad station, local businesses and common usage were unanimous.  Only those who signed as Greenburgh would be allowed to count.  The same trap eliminated common community names within larger cities as well.

by David Kowalski 2007-01-29 10:33AM | 0 recs
Re: Ballot access for challengers

no longer the case.

by debcoop 2007-01-29 03:03PM | 0 recs
Re: Ballot access for challengers

Still the case. Ballot access laws are best described as byzantine. Signatures can be thrown off petitions for any number of reasons. There has been some slightly loser application under review by the courts but not enough by far.

One of the most common is the name of the town. For example... in my county there is the Town of Sand Lake. When signing a petition residents of the Town of Sand Lake MUST put the name "Sand Lake" in the Town column. However, most folks in Sand Lake live in West Sand Lake, Averill Park, or Sand Lake. A persons natural inclination is to write their mailing address rather than Town name. This can get their signatures thrown off a petition and, if there are enough their, candidate thrown off the ballot. If the witness to the petition makes a mistake then the entire petition page is thrown out even if all the signatures are valid.

We instruct petition carriers to have people sign their names only and fill out the rest themselves according to the lists we give them. We also tell them to only gather signatures from people on their lists so that they can know the information is good and make sure it is filled out right (the lists are generated from the board of elections master database).

It is not goodness.

by Andrew C White 2007-01-29 05:53PM | 0 recs
Re: Meet Phillip Anderson, the Albany Project

Great interview, and a good way for national blogs to help publicize what we're doing in the states.

I love stealing a page from the Michael Moore playbook - looking forward to watching those videos.

Have you thought about getting involved in a primary race?

by SteveWFP 2007-01-29 10:51AM | 0 recs
Re: Meet Phillip Anderson, the Albany Project

short answer? yes.

by lipris 2007-01-29 04:27PM | 0 recs
Re: Meet Phillip Anderson, the Albany Project

hot

by SteveWFP 2007-01-30 08:33AM | 0 recs
Re: Meet Phillip Anderson, the Albany Project

One of the things that really points out just how completely dysfunctional Albany is is that in 2004 when the Brennan Center came out with their original report (executive summary and full pdf) it was endorsed by numerous business and citizen groups around the state from across the political spectrum. This is not a partisan dysfunction. It is not a partisan problem. The lack of representative democracy in New York State government affects all of us.

Brennan Center organized this broad coalition to come to Albany and lobby the legislature one day. Unfortunately, only one day.

Just a few months ago, Brennan Center came out with a new report Unfinished Business, that presented some of the changes that came out of the 2004 efforts and presented a scaled down suggestion of new changes for this year.

These new changes were NOT implemented.

There is much work to do. It can be done. It requires a concerted and sustained effort. Everyone knows Albany is dysfunctional. Everyone knows our state government doesn't work. Very few understand why or how to correct it.

I strongly suggest reading the Brennan Center reports and engaging with your Senator and Assembly member to insist on change in rules and law in order to make New York State government work for the people again.

Peace,

Andrew

by Andrew C White 2007-01-29 11:01AM | 0 recs
Re: Meet Phillip Anderson, the Albany Project

i really couldn't agree more, andrew. the dysfunction affecting albany aren't so much partisan problems as they are problems of incumbency. the system as it currently exists exists solely to perpetuate itself. it serves none other than itself and it is a product of most of a century's worth of bipartisan effort.

it is a given that no meaningful reform will happen as long as republicans control our state senate, the place where reform goes to die, but, that said, the day joe bruno and his crew are sent packing is when the real battle begins. that's the day that it becomes put up or shut up time for all those dems in the senate and assembly who have been talking big about reform for years knowing full well that those reforms will never pass the senate.

there is plenty of dead weight in the democratic party in albany and the day that the impediment of a GOP controlled state senate is removed, is the day we find out who the real reformers are.

and for those of us fighting the reform fight, we know what to do then.

by lipris 2007-01-29 11:33AM | 0 recs
Seymour Lachman ain't no progressive

Take his criticism of the legislature with many grains of salt.  If you want to talk DLC type Dem, then Seymour Lachman is one.

I would go to Albany to talk about abortion, and Lachman was lukewarm to women's right to an abortion.  He was in favor of many restrictions on women's right to make decisions for themselves. Secondly I found him to be slippery in how he appoached the issue and tried to have it both ways.

On other issues, Lachman would have a lot more in common with Joe Lieberman than Russ Feingold.  

His criticism of the legislature must be taken in the same light as if say a moderate right wing institution like the Manhattan Institute criticised the legislature.  He has disdain for progressive politics and that is the motivation and untertow of his book.

Let me also say that the Brennan Center suffers from something I call the progressive process fallacy.  That if you somehow create some arbitrarily, abstract, "good" process then what will result is, of course, a necessarily good outcome. Tain't so.

Sad to say that is not the case, politics and history bear that out.  One example, look at the results of the Progressive Era's reforms in California, the iniative and referendum process which were supposed to capture the real feelings of real people have now become the toy of the rich and the right wing---from Prop 13 to anti union inittives to anti affirmative action iniative.  They have become a way for the wealthy right wing to roll back progressive legislation.
They have horrbly burdened the the ability to govern California effectively.

Be careful what you wish for.  Remember the law of unintended consequences.

by debcoop 2007-01-29 02:51PM | 0 recs
Re: Seymour Lachman ain't no progressive

i have never described lachman as a progressive. ever. i doubt he would describe himself that way either.

as for those unintended consequences, as i said above, many of the structural problems with our state government, particularly the concentration of vast amounts of power in just three persons, i believe (as does lachman) can be traced back to the great progressive era in NY in the first third of the last century.

by lipris 2007-01-29 03:13PM | 0 recs
Who's Phillip Anderson?

by NYBri 2007-01-29 05:59PM | 0 recs
Re: Who's Phillip Anderson?

tryin' to be cute, aren't ya?

by lipris 2007-01-29 06:59PM | 0 recs
Meet Phillip Anderson: excellent work

Mr. Anderson, hmmm.  i'm loving the albany project and know that the 3 men in a room legislative prowess is coming to an end  and soon.

by senor wylie 2007-01-29 10:37PM | 0 recs
by jgalagger 2007-06-26 07:55AM | 0 recs

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