William F. B. O'Reilly is a consultant to Republicans.
Concurrence of the Stanley Cup playoffs and the end of the legislative session in Albany always reminds me of the dynamic perennially confronting New York Republicans.
Like a beleaguered hockey goalie, the Republican State Senate, now fortified by a small coalition of independent Democrats, constantly finds itself guarding the net, while progressives in the Legislature, fat with union resources, take shot after withering legislative slap shot on goal. At the end of the session, the pucks that didn't get through are considered the successes. And the Republicans pay for the ones that did get through with Conservative Party disapproval. Whatever the tally, one thing is certain: From January to July, the Republicans are playing defense.
Maybe that's just reality in a state like New York, where Democrats so dramatically outnumber Republicans. With an increasingly liberal Democratic governor and an Assembly preposterously lopsided by Democrats (100-49!), it's a minor miracle that Republicans have been able to maintain a voice -- much less cling to power -- in the state's upper house. That takes brains, organization and extraordinary political talent, which the Senate Republicans have long been blessed with. Nonetheless, the dynamic is ultimately a losing one. Little by little, it is chipping away at the Republican Senate majority coalition -- and any hope that New York can one day enact the fiscal reforms necessary to make the state economically competitive again.
This year has been no exception -- and it was a good one for the GOP. A plan to saddle taxpayers with the cost of state political campaigns looks to have been knocked back. So does a bill to remove virtually any restrictions on abortion through the ninth month of pregnancy, a measure almost surely designed to fire up liberal voters and keep them from focusing on the stagnant state economy -- there is no lack of access to abortion in New York. Dozens of lesser-known bills were introduced in the Assembly that would have increased state spending and regulation, exacerbating the reputation New York has emphatically earned as a high tax, business unfriendly state. Those bills are typically dead on arrival in the Senate . . . as long as Republicans are in charge.
But Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo is now warning Republicans and independent Democrats that they're being marked for defeat at the polls next year as punishment for blocking parts of his so-called progressive agenda this year. Those independent Democrats will presumably get well-funded primary opponents, and vulnerable Republicans will get showered with negative TV, radio and direct-mail ads, courtesy of the union left.
Chip, chip, chip.
At the risk of oversimplifying things, any sports enthusiast knows that a team perpetually playing defense will eventually lose. Winning requires going on the offense, moving the puck, ball or, in this case, ideas, down the field. That's what New York Republicans need to start doing, and fearlessly.
The biggest problems facing the state continue to be economic, and Cuomo's reform agenda has stalled as dramatically as the Russian Mir Space Station did before plunging to Earth (another piece of it was discovered in someone's back yard just this week). Indeed, like Mir, the Cuomo reform agenda is no longer on the radar.
There was a reason Cuomo's popularity rating was so high in his first year as governor: He appeared willing to address the intractable problems that have sent this state into its own downward spiral. Cuomo was going to stand up to the unions, whose benefit packages are bankrupting cities like Syracuse and Yonkers and squeezing local school budgets from Oyster Bay to Niagara Falls. Cuomo was going to hold the line on taxes and provide meaningful mandate reform to the municipalities. He was going to allow safe and sensible hydrofracking in an area of the state desperate for jobs and capital.
But then, on all these things, he capitulated.
All this and more is on the table for Republicans to seize. Truly progressive ideas that have galvanized voters in other states, like "right-to-work" initiatives that would give state employees the right to refuse union membership and its attendant expenses, need to be put on the table. They might not pass right away, and they will almost certainly anger the union bosses, but they will create a new and necessary conversation for state voters to get behind.
Republicans in other heavily Democratic states, like Wisconsin and Michigan, have sprung back to life by taking on some of these very issues, and in doing so they have recognized another sports axiom: A fan base will only grow if it has something to cheer for.
William F. B. O'Reilly is a Newsday columnist and a Republican political consultant.