In an election year where Albany veterans are under unprecedented fire, popular rage may be channeled locally into a single race. Unlike most state legislature seats, which are gerrymandered into virtually unassailable partisan strongholds, the 131st Assembly District offers a tighter race.
Incumbent Democrat Susan John holds an advantage of less than 10,000 among registered voters in the two main parties. The district also contains more than 16,000 blank or minor-party voters.
John's Republican opponent, Chili town board member Mike Slattery, lost a challenge to her two years ago by a scant 800 votes. Slattery is a self-described conservative, while John is known for more liberal stances. The two differ along party lines on such matters as abortion (Slattery opposes it without exception; John favors choice) and the death penalty (John opposes it; Slattery wants the necessary reforms to put it back into effect). But frustration with state government is at the heart of this race.
Slattery doesn't hide the fact that he hopes to ride the anti-Albany wave into a seat at the state capitol. John counters by offering explanations for many of her positions. Here are some issues the two candidates identified as top priorities in conversations with City Newspaper:
• Assembly Bill A7213. Slattery immediately brought up this legislation (sponsored by Joe Morelle) before speaking about any other issue. The bill would shift some of the financial burden of work-related injuries onto workers. It now sits in the labor committee, of which John is chair.
"A democratic colleague of hers has a bill that she will not allow to come out of committee, and it's killing businesses in New York," Slattery says. "Basically it drives up the cost of insurance. She's trying to say 'well there's safeguards in there if somebody falls off a building or so forth.' But the thing is, we're the only state in the country that has this bill." Insurance has gone up by 500 percent for some contractors, he says.
As lawyers, he says, John and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver are blocking the bill for personal gain.
But John responds by questioning insurance companies' motives. "The insurance community is harping on this particular provision, but it's also important to note that there are many people who aren't affected by Labor Law 240 who have seen catastrophic increases in their insurance premiums, and the insurance industry cannot tell us how much Labor Law 240 costs," she says. "If you don't have that information then how do you know it's a problem?"
John acknowledges insurance costs are a problem for businesses, but says "to address the insurance crisis, we need to make sure we don't throw out the worker protections at the same time."
She also denies blocking the bill in committee, saying she withdrew it at Morelle's request, after it became clear it would be defeated. "He asked me as a courtesy if I would take it off of the agenda, and that's what I did."
• Medicaid: "The state ought to take over funding of the Medicaid program," says John. "Take Medicaid off the backs of the real property-tax payers."
New York's federal reimbursement rate formulas --- the lowest in the nation --- need to be updated, John says. "The business community needs to join hands with the state government leaders and go to Washington and say we are not the wealthy state we were in 1965," she says.
Slattery agrees Medicaid is a serious challenge. "When you look at the cost of Medicaid that's being passed down to local governments, it's killing the county, it's killing the towns and villages," he says. His reform strategy, though, is less specific than John's: "Do I have an actual plan for Medicaid relief? No. But there's something that needs to be done with it. Is it something that I'd like to work on? Oh yeah, without a doubt," he says.
• Reform in Albany: Slattery sums up his take on Albany in just three words: "Tax and spend," he says. "They continue to do that. They keep pushing mandates down to the local government and on the local level we're trying to balance our own budget."
He also takes aim at the infamous "three-men-in-a-room" style of government and echoes the Brennan Center report, saying "What you need to do is empower legislators."
Slattery didn't commit to pushing for any of the center's reforms, though, adding "I just can't say generically, can we go in and do everything in the Brennan Center report? As in any bill that is sitting in Albany or in Washington, there's going to be flaws." But he's happy to cite statistics from the report faulting the legislature, before adding "My opponent says that the report is flawed and that she doesn't agree with it."
Indeed, John told City Newspaper just that: "I think the report is based on flawed assumptions," she says. "For example, right now, any single member of the House can force a quorum call so everybody has to be in their seat when voting. Their proposal is that five people should be able to demand that. Why is that a reform?"
John also views surging anti-Albany feelings differently: "I think the public's frustration --- and the Brennan Center's report doesn't address this issue at all --- is about the budget," she says. "It's because the budget's been late for 20 years that the public is so frustrated with Albany. We could do every single thing in the Brennan Center report and the budget would still be late."
John was on a task force that worked on reforms to the budget process. "We negotiated a constitutional amendment and a statute," she says. "We need a constitutional amendment because the court has said the role of the legislature, if it doesn't like the governor's budget, is to wait for the governor to negotiate." That amendment, if passed again in 2005, could go to the state's voters by next fall, and would allow the legislature to impose a budget, rather than wait for the governor.