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Oh, SmAlbany!

Daily posts and occasional longer essays about politics, culture, and life in the Capital Region...updated M-F, midmorning


"I write this not as a booster of Albany, which I am, nor an apologist for the city, which I sometimes am, but rather as a person whose imagination has become fused with a single place, and in that place finds all the elements that a man ever needs..." -W. Kennedy, from O Albany!

Charter reform battles...

City politics heats up: Although Mayor Jennings seems safe to maintain his job this fall, the battle over charter reform has heated up this week. As has been widely reported, the Albany Civic Agenda (ACA henceforth) has been trying to get some specific charter reforms onto the ballot this fall, in the hopes that voters will shift some governmental powers from the mayor to the Common Council. I won't delve into my thoughts on the substance of the proposed charter reform here. I've outlined my position on the topic in an award-winning previous post. [Have you no shame? It was only Metroland.-ed. I had to take the opportunity. To rip Metroland? -ed. That too.]

Today, we're sticking to base politics. As you might have read, City Clerk John Marsolais has denied the petition, citing improprieties in 766 of the petition signatures, leaving the petition 122 signatures short of the minimum required to put it on the ballot in the fall. The ACA is now urging the Common Council to put the measure on the ballot anyway, although it's not clear if they will do that. We may just be headed toward a classic New York State lawsuit over ballot signatures. A few points:

Point #1) Ballot signatures again!: I told you they are the root of trashy politics in Albany! Nevertheless, I'm pretty sure this is a classic...

Point #2) Win-through-losing situation: There are so many situations in politics that are far more complex than they appear, simply because people are angling to strategically lose things on purpose, or at least don't care if they lose because their real goals are tangent to the fight at hand. Often, there is as much to gain through losing as there is through winning - you get your message out and your face known, you can build steam among your base of support for future attempts, and you can parlay your new noteriety into other political projects. Some good historical examples of this are: Lincoln in the 1858 Senate race, Kennedy in the '56 Democratic VP nomination, Frist in the "nuclear showdown" a few months back, and even Pirro in the upcoming NY Senate race next year. In all these cases, losing was arguably better for the candidate than winning. This is especially true in the case where "winning" is not the final prize, like Kennedy in '56, who would have just ended up on a sure-loser ticket against a popular Ike if he had "won." Instead, he got his name out there, got some momentum for his coalition of backers, and avoided the kiss-of-death landslide defeat in the '56 election. Same with Frist and the nuclear option: he avioded a potential loss in a showdown, gets to rail against the democrats who blocked the judges, and didn't personally cave, thus not alienating his base. It couldn't have gone better for his presidential aspirations, his real goal.

Charter reform seems to be spinning in this manner right now. I think it serves the long term interests of both sides - the Mayor and the ACA - to lose this round of the battle. If the ACA wins by getting the Council to put reform on the ballot, it's by no means clear that the reforms will pass in the fall, especially since the mayor can easily attack it as a council power grab. For them to lose a ballot initiative in the fall would be a complete disaster. But to lose by not having it on the ballot would be a major victory for their movement, which after all isn't really about charter reform. They have bigger prizes - like capturing the mayor's office itself - on their long-term minds.

Likewise, if the mayor suceeds in keeping it off the ballot, it will strengthen the ACA's coalition for the future and give them the "defeated by the powers that be" angle that they desparately need to take their cause to the next level next time around, when they might have a serious mayoral candidate to go with the reforms. In any case, the mayor will almost certainly be forced to face a greater challenge next time around. The dream scenario for him right now is to have a divided council put the initiative on the ballot so he can campaign against it as a council power grab and have it crushed in the fall, with half the council publicly against it.

In essence, I'm pretty sure that anyone with the long term big picture in mind is better off losing the current battle beign played out today. It's political Kabuki theater at it's best. And it's silly to think that the participants don't realize this. It's gets even creepier when you think about it, because it follows from this logic that...

Point #3) Council members who want serious charter reform might vote against putting the petition on the ballot!: If it is clear that keeping the initiative off the ballot will build momentum for the ACA and its allies next time around, long-term thinking council members might try to keep the initiative off the ballot in hopes of getting even stronger reform on the ballot next time around that could really strengthen their institutional power! This is the classic strategic voting situation of a legislature - torpedoing legislation you want because you hope to get even better legislation down the road, either after an election bolsters your coalition or after public sentiment boils about the loss-at-hand. It works because all political ideas have a shelf-life - you can't simply revisit the same topic every year. You often only get one shot. Once that one shot sucessfully passes, you can often forget about any further changes in the near future. The charter reforms are rather tame compared to stuff the council might want that would really hamstring the mayor and shift the power.

I don't know how much strategic political behavior is going on right now in the charter reform fight. It may be that the sides are acting in a relatively straightforward manner. But don't count against the possibility that those crying at the end of the current battle know that they have actually won.
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