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Debating the merits of fusion voting

Voting booths at West Babylon Junior High School

Voting booths at West Babylon Junior High School on Nov. 3, 2015. Credit: Barry Sloan

Daily Point

Debate over fusion voting

The first hearing for the Public Campaign Finance Commission took place in Manhattan on Tuesday, but in many ways the important parts had to do with Long Island. 

The controversial commission created during this year’s state budget process was tasked with establishing a system of public campaign financing for statewide and state legislative elected offices as well as other related changes. The panel’s report is due Dec. 1, and its recommendations become law unless the State Legislature returns to Albany by Dec. 22 to reject them.

What the nine appointed commissioners are considering would constitute a sea change for New York elections, and the good government groups that testified Tuesday morning were in general agreement about plenty of it: lower contribution limits and a public matching system for both primaries and general elections, a system that encourages politicians to focus on small donors as opposed to the wealthy. The kind of stuff that would allow the commission to be a “laboratory for democracy,” said Brennan Center chief counsel Fritz Schwarz in his testimony.

But the real tension in the early hours of the hearing had to do with fusion voting, which allows candidates to run on multiple party lines, a system that is in the commission’s crosshairs.

The Working Families and Conservative parties have sued to stop the commission from meddling in this part of election law, and some of the sharpest exchanges came when WFP representatives came to make their case. 

WFP national committee co-chair Dan Cantor described the practice of letting candidates run on multiple lines as “useful” for democracy, as a way to express support for certain issues ignored by the main parties while also avoiding the “spoiler problem.” 

State Democratic Party chair Jay Jacobs, a Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo-appointed commissioner, disagreed vehemently from the dais on the premise that there is ideological consistency, noting the confusing commonality on Long Island of candidates running on, say, the Conservative and WFP lines.

“Yours is not the only party that's a minor party," Jacobs said, citing the Independence Party which has political impact in Nassau and Suffolk counties.

One commissioner, Assembly Republican-appointed Kimberly Galvin, said that she thought the legislation enacting the commission didn’t allow commissioners to get into fusion. The GOP is concerned about losing the Conservative line, often a winning strategy on Long Island. The back and forth continued long after the 20-minute countdown clock for testimony had arrived at 0, part of a long day for the commission.

And members of the public hadn’t even started testifying.

- Mark Chiusano @mjchiusano

Talking Point

Legal Aid attorneys advocating for themselves

More than 100 attorneys who work for Suffolk County’s Legal Aid Society are voting Tuesday on whether to unionize, a contentious move the non-profit’s administrators are aggressively fighting.

Arthur Burdette, the founder of the society’s attorneys association, told The Point that a “vast majority” of the attorneys representing indigent clients signed cards this summer in support of the union and that management initially agreed to honor their intent, subject to an audit of the signature cards. On Aug. 23, the association acknowledged “with great pride and appreciation” the voluntary recognition in a Facebook post. But by Sept. 3, the association, which kept its organizing efforts under the radar, posted that management had changed course and refused the card check, which led to Tuesday’s vote.

Laurette D. Mulry, the attorney in charge, did not respond to telephone or email requests for comment.

What puzzles many in the state and local labor movement is the resistance by management. The Legal Aid Society is funded by the county, and County Executive Steve Bellone asked management to remain neutral while the Democratic majority on the county legislature supported the unionization effort. 

Burdette said the agency’s starting salary of $55,000 is about the same as Nassau County but lower than the $66,000 in New York City. Both of those organizations are unionized with collective bargaining contracts that include yearly raises. Burdette said there are some Suffolk Legal Aid attorneys who have not had a raise in five years, and that without a contract there is no way to predict future income. Burdette also said salary increases and promotions were “not merit based.” As a consequence, he said young attorneys leave as quickly as possible and that the Suffolk group is not able to attract quality talent. Reportedly, half of the 2019 hiring class of new attorneys failed the state bar exam.

The NLRB supervises the vote, which is taking place until 6 p.m. Tuesday at Legal Aid offices in Central Islip and Riverhead.

- Rita Ciolli @RitaCiolli

Pencil Point

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Final Point

CD1 race comes into focus

The contours of the Democratic field in New York’s 1st Congressional District are falling into place, with sources telling The Point that attorney Jack Harrington will likely not be running. 

Harrington, a former candidate for Brookhaven Town supervisor who until recently served a military deployment overseas, was seen by some as having the right service background to take on Rep. Lee Zeldin, who also has a military record. Harrington did not respond to an email Tuesday asking about his plans.

Meanwhile, the two declared Democrats have tried to build support. First in was businessman Perry Gershon, who lost his 2018 challenge against Zeldin by 4 percentage points. He raised more than $400,000 through July and banked much of that money during that period. This week, Gershon announced a redoubled effort to reach voters with 10 planned town halls over 10 months, the first slated for Sept. 24 at the Mastics-Moriches-Shirley Library in Zeldin’s hometown. 

Scientist Nancy Goroff declared her candidacy earlier this summer and on Tuesday rolled out her first individual endorsement, from Suffolk County Legis. Kara Hahn. Goroff already has the support of 314 Action, which backs those with science backgrounds in bids for office. 

With Harrington apparently a no-go, the clock is ticking for anyone else to throw in their hat, too.

- Mark Chiusano @mjchiusano