Philanthropy New York recently held a members briefing (sponsored by the Mertz Gilmore Foundation, The New York Community Trust, and The Clark Foundation) focusing on the current climate in the New York State legislature, how it affects the work of the nonprofit sector, and how funders and advocates can work together to produce change in Albany. We are pleased to have one of the program’s presenters,Dick Dadey, Executive Director of the Citizens Union of the City of New York, provide us with a recap.
Citizens Union Foundation participated in a thought-provoking session on July 20th at Philanthropy New York in which the impact of New York State government’s dysfunction on the nonprofit community was discussed. The conversation established the connection between the need for systemic reform and the desire of nonprofits to see their issues addressed more openly and the funding for the services they provide decided more impartially. The back-and-forth between the panel and the attendees opened the door for foundations to understand why change in Albany is not only needed but also possible, so that the nonprofits they fund can work more effectively and efficiently.
New York State Senate Member Diane Savino represents portions of Staten Island and Brooklyn and described her experience. Upon arrival in Albany in 2005, she found a leadership system that enables many state legislators to “duck and cover” in order to remain in the leadership’s good graces, thus ensuring protection from future political challengers. The result? Meaningful dialogue and debate is largely replaced by blind loyalty to a system and leadership model in which the public interest has no role.
Ana María Archila (Make the Road New York) and Richard Kahan (The Urban Assembly) brought perspectives correlating to their respective work with immigrants and public schools. Ana María described how Make the Road strengthened its capacity in order to increase its power and influence in Albany and advocate for bills related to domestic workers and wage theft. Even with strong commitment by Senator Savino and others, these bills would not have succeeded if Assembly and Senate leadership had chosen for purely political reasons not to introduce them. Richard pointed to the state budget—still not adopted four months into the fiscal year—which has left schools in a lurch. Principals can’t order supplies; parents and children don’t know what programs will be available; and teachers cannot adequately prepare for new classes which remain unconfirmed.
Finally, I described concrete strategies underway to capitalize on New Yorkers’ anger and clamor for change to bring about needed reforms in the areas of ethics and campaign finance and end partisan gerrymandering. Gerrymandering occurs when electoral district boundaries are deliberately modified for electoral purposes, often producing contorted or unusual shapes and splitting apart communities. Gerrymandering is used to generate desired election outcomes for a particular party, or to help (or hinder) a particular group of constituents.
All participants agreed that the problem of gerrymandered voting districts perpetuates a deeply flawed system that primarily protects legislators in office rather than addressing New York’s myriad problems—complex challenges around education, jobs, environmental needs, housing, and more.
The time has come for change in Albany. Between now and 2012, when new district lines are drawn, we must capitalize on the most potent tool that currently exists for breaking the cycle of dysfunction. We must create a coalition of citizens groups, business leaders, advocacy organizations, and reform-minded legislators to reshape New York, rallying around an idea adopted by other states around the country: a citizens independent redistricting commission. By using fair guidelines and criteria in drawing state legislative districts, we can rediscover democracy by creating districts that truly represent the communities and people of New York State.
Dick Dadey is the Executive Director of Citizens Union and Citizens Union Foundation, interrelated organizations working since 1897 and 1948 respectively in pursuit of good government and political reform in New York. Since becoming Executive Director in 2004, Mr. Dadey has led the revitalization of the historic group to once again become an effective watchdog on government and an influential civic affairs organization.