Pols poll

September 30, 2010 03:16 PM | 0 0 comments | 14 14 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Wildly conflicting polls on the race for New York governor are sure to shake people’s confidence in what is purported to be a science but is increasingly seen as an art.

One well-respected poll had Republican Carl Paladino trailing long-gone Democrat Andrew Cuomo by six points (with the margin of error, a statistical dead heat) right after the primary, only to give way to a pair of other polls showing Cuomo with a near two-to-one lead.


Going back a littler further, a pre-primary poll had Paladino and GOP designee Rick Lazio tied the weekend going into the election, which the Buffalo developer won by more than 20 points.

Again, wazzup?

“Scientific polling” of elections has been with us at least since the Truman-Dewey race in 1948. That pollsters got that one dead wrong is generally attributed to the growing pains of social research. In that case, interviews had been limited to people with telephones.

A lot of people look to polls for intelligence, sometimes guidance. While a poll is only a snapshot in time, the trends are of particular interest to the pros. Is the candidate holding his or her own? Is the opposition gaining or losing? What should the campaign strategy be? Some officeholders, like LBJ, for instance, were accused of governing by poll.

It’s possible that in the competition to get results out first some pollsters have gotten sloppy, careless. It may be that this year the political climate is so volatile that any poll will be obsolete before it’s published, or wrong ...

Given recent experience, a healthy dose of skepticism is suggested in reading polls.

Tweaking the design

Through its charter revision commission, Ulster County government hopes to take the politics out of reapportionment by assigning it to a non-partisan citizens’ committee recruited by the county executive and appointed by the legislature. Though a noble goal of a charter narrowly approved by voters in 2006, the strategy suffers from several serious flaws as it enters the execution stage.

Most egregiously, the process, by design, excludes thousands of “government-connected” county residents. No officeholder, party committee person, or town, city or county employee can be appointed to the committee. Though the objective was to keep politics out of the process, in practice the exclusion becomes blatant discrimination against a very large class of people.

Secondly, owing to a remarkable lack of foresight by the charter commission, there is yet no end game to this process. As dictated by the charter, the majority and minority leader will each name two reapportionment committee members from the executive’s pool of volunteers. Those four people will name three more to form a panel of seven. The net effect as of now will be that seven unelected people will establish district lines for the next ten years.

Will they do a fair job of it? I think they would. Take the politics out and it becomes just a numbers game. Divide 23 districts into about 180,000 people — with a five or 10 percent deviation — and presto! There’s your reapportionment plan.

The more democratic way would be for the people’s elected representatives, the Ulster County Legislature, to have the final say. And if that means the county executive has veto power, so be it. At least somebody voted for them.

Thirdly, this four-gets-you-three-more is a design for mischief and delay. Suppose the two members appointed by the majority and the two from the minority can’t agree on three other people? We get deadlock. And time is not on the side of this process.

Under a (whimsical?) schedule laid out by the executive and the county attorney, final census information should be available by February, by which time it is hoped the seven-member committee can turn eagerly to its task. County attorney Bea (“BMW,” for the snazzy German sports car she drives) Havranek hopes for a final plan by May.

Havranek, a former Rosendale supervisor and one of the brainier Democrats, knows the legislative nominating cycle doesn’t start in May; it’s practically over by then. Nominating conventions are typically held the last week in May and the first week in June. By then, almost every duck is lined up in both major parties.

Political parties need at least a few months to determine whether incumbents will run — some can be quite fickle, others play hard-to-get — and to seek out challengers. At the least, these candidates should know their election districts before committing to long, expensive campaigns. Might a Republican legislator from Esopus, for instance, shiver at running one-on-one in a district with a substantial number of Kingston Democrats? Does Woodstock really have that much in common with Shandaken? And so on.

By the numbers, reapportionment isn’t that difficult. It’s the politics that complicates things. In flat-line Ulster, a smart fifth-grader could draw a fairly accurate representation of what 23 election districts might look like right now. Given the availability of official census figures in February, the committee should commit itself to a March 15 deadline for a plan.

There is always the possibility of a challenge, frivolous or otherwise. Suppose this independent committee produces districts that one side or the other considers grossly unfair? Most districts will cross town (and city) lines, given the 8,900-population-per district average. Suppose local officials object? An appeal to the courts, at that point the only relief, will take time, something altogether short in this truncated process.

But let us be positive. If this reapportionment process works — and it will be difficult — Ulster County could be a shining example of how to produce fair and balanced government.

Notes — towns don’t have to be reapportioned, since within them town candidates run at large. Not so in Kingston, where the nine city wards will be reapportioned next year. In the spirit of county downsizing (from 33 to 23), I’d suggest no more than seven aldermen in the new plan. Nine cause too much mischief. Democrats, with a 7-2 majority, will be in no mood to turn over reapportionment to an impartial citizen committee.

Good to see Blair Horner, legislative director of the New York Public Research Interest Group (NYPIRG), at Mike Hein’s reapportionment launch last week. Horner, a well-preserved 55, has been waging the “goo-goo” fight (for good government) for 20-odd years. Though he likes the Ulster model for reapportionment, he isn’t betting on anything like that happening in majority-ruled Albany.

They like Mike

Speaking of launches, County Executive Mike Hein hosted his first fundraiser of the year last week, selling, I am told by very reliable sources, in excess of 400 tickets at $75 a pop. Holding a fundraiser on legislative meeting night, he said, was a matter of convenience; nothing against the legislature, you understand. Two legislators, Hector Rodriguez of New Paltz and Mike Madsen of Kingston, did manage to stop by before heading to session across town.

Off-year fundraisers — Hein is up for reelection in 2011 — nettle some, but most pols do it. Mayor Jim Sottile runs his booze cruises on the Hudson every year. Kevin Cahill does his “fun-raiser in the park” each summer. And Maurice Hinchey, John Bonacic and Bill Larkin sound like woodpeckers the way they’re constantly tapping for campaign money. Hein did a fundraiser last year

For an incumbent, building a large war chest early is just smart politics. It scares off the dabblers — like loud-mouthed legislators with empty pockets and shallow donor bases — while projecting the appearance of popularity.

Duelling audits

Audits usually aren’t very sexy, except maybe when the county comptroller and the legislature lock horns.

Not to confuse matters, but there are actually two audits in play. One involves the legislature attempting to (re)hire the firm it used last year to help it review the executive’s budget for 2011, due Oct. 6. Problem was that the legislature got flagged by Comptroller Elliott Auerbach for not following its own procedures for hiring the auditor. The legislature will have to review the executive’s budget without independent expertise. Last year they spent $70,000 for an auditor and still couldn’t muster the 17 votes for budget passage. So maybe they’re saving $70,000.

The other issue has to do with the legislature’s responsibility to “provide” for an ($92,000) annual county audit. The legislature interprets this to mean the legislature names the auditor. Auerbach says the solons only authorize (“provide”) the funds and that it’s his job as chief fiscal office to select one. Defying the comptroller, the legislature, by a veto-proof 26-5 bipartisan vote last week, reasserted its authority.

After consulting with the county attorney on “charter issues,” Hein said he would sign the legislation.

“I’m not surprised,” said legislature Chairman Fred Wadnola. “It was the right thing to do. The comptroller would have been hiring an auditor to audit his own department [and other county departments].”

Comptroller Auerbach, currently looking for some 2 million in dollars in unpaid hotel and lodging room taxes, has moved on to other quests.
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