Meet Phillip Anderson, the Albany Project
by Nancy Scola, Mon Jan 29, 2007 at 07:53:25 AM EST
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.
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.