Symposium seeks path to cleaner government


No two political activist organizations are alike. But then again, there isn’t much out there like Bronx Indivisible.

The political organization that rose in the shadow of Trump and enjoyed success almost immediately by getting rid of Jeffrey Klein’s Republican-supporting Independent Democratic Conference in the state senate, spent last Sunday afternoon doing what probably few others would think about doing — talking about ethics in the political process.

And what better place to discuss it than the Riverdale-Yonkers Ethical Culture Society meetinghouse in Fieldston, which attracted not only activists, but just about every elected official who is anyone — even if they had no plans to talk.

State Sen. Alessandra Biaggi was there, of course. She arrived during city comptroller Scott Stringer’s speech to find there were no seats in the packed house. But no worries, she simply perched herself on the stairs until it was her turn to speak, cheering one of her most ardent campaign supporters.

She was a week off her first state budget, which was a mixed bag of success at best — but one Biaggi made clear was more than a learning experience.

“I have to say that this past budget month has left me in a state of inspiration and anger and excitement,” Biaggi told the crowd. “And I am here to share with every single one of you exactly what I believe will bring back to this community (what it means) to be transparent, to hold everybody accountable, and to literally break down the Byzantine system that has built our government.”

What Biaggi has seen in Albany so far isn’t working, she said. It took a Democratic takeover just to get the ethics committee — which she now chairs — to gather for the first time in anyone’s recent memory.

“This committee had not met for seven years, and we wonder why there is corruption,” Biaggi said.

But even with an active committee, there is still a lot she can’t do, like review legislation and other enforcement powers that would give ethics more teeth when it comes to the senate.

Now, however, Biaggi is turning her attention to education, and not just what is happening in the schools. She learned a lot about the legislative process in the last couple months — especially when it comes to the budget — and she wants to go out now and educate everyone she can find on how this process works so they can work together to change it.

Change, by the way, would have to come through a state constitutional amendment, an amendment that would require the support of the governor. And it’s unlikely Andrew Cuomo is going to want to cede any power the courts have given him in the budget process, Biaggi warned.

“For a constitutional amendment to go through, you need an executive willing to sign the legislation, and two consecutive legislative sessions in order for it to become law,” Biaggi said. “It probably won’t be signed, but we’re going to try and put our best effort forward to really rebalance those scales. This is honestly one of the best ways we can do that.”

Courts have ruled in the past that the governor has authority when it comes to the state budget, even going so far as to allow him to push policy in the process at the same. time. It’s where congestion pricing for downtown Manhattan was approved, for instance.

While Biaggi is focusing on budget, Stringer is paying close attention to campaign finance reform. He’s hoping the state has at least moved closer to removing big money from elections, and implementing a version of the city’s campaign finance matching statewide.

“The reform movement has spread from Riverdale to around the country,” Stringer said. That reform has allowed more variety in candidates to face some of the old guard, even within the Democratic Party, where he says some of its more prominent members seem to be more aligned with conservative values than progressive.

“Now people are asking legislators why they are not pro-choice, for instance, Stringer said. “Why legislators don’t represent the Democratic Party. I think there are going to be a lot more primaries much like we had last year.

“I am going to be involved in that excitement wherever I can help endorse and participate.”

But that requires money — something special interest groups are only too happy to provide the candidates they choose and keep in office.

“You have to put your money and your political heft behind these guys,” Stringer said. “Nobody should take time off because they’re afraid to rankle the political system.”

People were fired up in the mid-term elections, but that must continue for the party to continue to evolve and grow, Biaggi said.

“This is just the beginning of the conversation,” she said. “And this summer, I will be very vocal about the things that I want us to know about and learn.

“We need to change it. That is the right thing to do.”