A Reform Store

Reform comes to New York in cycles, and this year was one of those moments when the status quo seemed ripe for change. But with the reformers’ usual target-Tammany Hall and its descendants in the urban machine-all but dead in the city, the movement has turned its eyes to Albany, where an unusual combination of forces is forcing change on a state government recently ranked worst in the nation.

Suddenly reformers are everywhere. They’ve surfaced in the Democratic minority in the State Senate and among rebels in the State Assembly; in Nassau County, where the ambitious county executive, Tom Suozzi, has made reform his signature cause; and perhaps most dangerous to politics-as-usual, in the heart of the Albany establishment itself, where a new district attorney is set to shake up the cozy relationship between state officials and lobbyists.

“It’s just a confluence of events,” said Manhattan Assemblyman Scott Stringer. “It’s a perfect storm for reform.”

Reform movements sweep New York with a certain regularity. Seth Low rode one to the Mayoralty in 1901; Fiorello La Guardia came to power in another. Ed Koch built his career on the defeat of the last real boss of Tammany Hall, Carmine di Sapio, in 1963.

But Mr. Koch, speaking just before his 80th birthday last week, took a skeptical look at this new wave of “goo-goo-ism” (that’s political-speak for “good-government movements”).

“When I was involved, there were thousands of people involved,” said Mr. Koch said. “Now you’ve got to give credit to Suozzi and others, because they’re out there almost all alone. But it could have legs.”

The cause of reform really got rolling this summer, and it was a matter of timing as much as anything else. On July 21, the Brennan Center for Justice, a liberal city-based think tank nobody in Albany had ever heard of, released a report ranking New York’s legislature the worst in the nation and offering a set of solutions. Reports like this usually end up on dusty shelves. But this one came as the State Legislature was struggling to pass its 20th consecutive late budget, which finally emerged on Aug. 12. And it came as the Legislature was failing to respond to a court ruling that the state must increase its funding for New York City schools.

The report pushed a set of modest technical changes to the ways the State Assembly and the State Senate do business. It proposed reviving the committee system, noting that less than 1 percent of bills passed in each house receives a full committee hearing. The Brennan Center also proposed giving legislators more power to bring bills to the floor without the support of their leaders, and the report backed ending one of Albany’s most peculiar institutions: the tradition that legislators routinely have their votes counted when they are absent.

By September, the Assembly was considering many of the Brennan Center’s proposals, and even the Senate majority leader, Joseph Bruno, had hurriedly convened a competing reform task force. Legislators have occasionally showed some truculence toward their reformist colleagues, but the real test will come next month, when the Assembly has a chance to consider rule changes.

Meanwhile, the Brennan Center’s report has generated unexpected public excitement.

In Rochester, a citizens’ group came up with the eccentric notion of writing “Brennan Report” in on ballots for the state office this year, rather than voting for any particular state legislator. The protest drew 1,362 votes.

“It’s not common for us to be in the middle of that kind of popular cause,” said Scott Schell, the Brennan Center’s spokesman. “It’s a sign of something larger.”

A Dangerous D.A.

The meat and potatoes of reform are the center’s proposed rule changes, but the most intriguing new face on the political scene next year will be the new Albany district attorney. David Soares is a politician in the Mr. Smith Goes to Washington mode, though he prefers to compare himself to Frodo Baggins, the incorruptible hobbit. His outsider status was on display when he spoke to The Observer recently in a corner of City Hall Restaurant, a tasteful, pricey Duane Street joint that serves as the main intersection of money and politics in New York City these days. Its clientele runs heavily to politicians and the lobbyists who pay for lunch. Mr. Soares, a slightly pudgy 34-year-old with coffee-colored skin and an even stare, was hunched in a corner of the bar the other day with a few aides, looking earnest and young and slightly out of place even before a waiter showed up with his coffee in a French press.

“What do I do with this?” he asked an aide of the unfamiliar caffeine-delivery vehicle. “I’ve never seen one of these before.”

The former assistant prosecutor, a graduate of Cornell University and Albany Law School, told The Observer that he hadn’t even considered running for office until less than a year ago. Then, he was working as an assistant district attorney, handling routine criminal prosecutions on Albany’s streets and being frustrated by, among other things, an unofficial ban on investigating the houses of the politically connected. Then he quit, telling his boss that he’d run against him in the Democratic primary.

The D.A., Paul Clyne, “spent the first 10 minutes laughing at me,” Mr. Soares said. “In the next two minutes, he fired me.”

Albany’s political-lobbying establishment stopped laughing after Mr. Soares won the primary. One of the state’s top lobbyists participated in a legal campaign to knock him off the ballot. But Mr. Soares won the general election and now has jurisdiction over the Governor and legislators.

The ferocity of the campaign against Mr. Soares came as a surprise. “I did not anticipate that I would have a very powerful lobbying firm paying that much attention to this little old prosecutor,” he said. “It told me that the office that I was seeking was an office that was much more important in the overall scheme of things than most of us in this county could ever have anticipated. We were on to something big.”

Mr. Soares spoke after a meeting with a veteran prosecutor of political malfeasance, Manhattan D.A. Robert Morgenthau, who told him simply to follow the facts where they led him. But don’t be surprised if he’s willing to violate what’s sometimes known as the Bear Mountain Compact, the rule that what happens in Albany stays in Albany.

“We have issues on the state level right here on the doorstep of the D.A.’s office,” he said.

Mr. Soares’ election seems like a fluke; his focus on political reform came largely after he’d gotten a taste of Albany’s bipartisan consensus against change. But it’s been that kind of year. Out on Long Island, Mr. Suozzi launched his “Fix Albany” campaign, pledging to knock off an incumbent legislator to signal his outrage at governance as usual-and succeeded. All this, combined with the Brennan Center’s report, sparked a pile of kindling that the New York Times and Daily News editorial boards, among others, had been building for years.

Some longtime observers of New York politics and its cycles of reform see something different this time. One of them is Representative Jerrold Nadler, who is a product of the Upper West Side’s reform Democratic clubs in the 1970′s. “This time it’s deeper,” he said. “Then it was about reforming politics. Now it’s about the government itself.”