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Legislative Shenanigans: A New York Tradition


The latest from the Albany Circus, otherwise known as the New York State government, is that Sen. Hiram Monserrate, the Democrat-turned-Republican, is back to being a Democrat again, leaving the legislature deadlocked at 31-31. The Democrats are itching to depose their current leader, Malcolm Smith, but they can’t, because their position is that Smith is still officially the speaker. For a while, Tom Duane, a gay left-winger from Manhattan, was considering joining the GOP caucus if they would bring a bill on gay marriage to the floor, though now he seems back in the Democratic fold. Meanwhile the Assembly speaker is threatening to send his members home if the Senate doesn’t get its act together, and the governor is issuing contradictory statements and being generally ignored.

Just another routine day in America’s most dysfunctional state government. And it’s been that way since the Revolution, or even before. New York politics has always been a snake pit of conflicting factions, where party has mattered less than who you know and what they can do for you (and vice versa). Here’s another example of fiddling with legislative majorities, as described by Denis Tilden Lynch in his spirited An Epoch and a Man: Martin Van Buren and His Times (1929). The background is that the Assembly chose the Council of Appointment, which was responsible for all patronage appointments in the state; and once chosen, the council could not be replaced until the next year. In 1816 Van Buren, leader of the Senate Republicans (today’s Democratic party), schemed to put the council in Republican hands even though they were in the minority:

The opening roll-call showed sixty-two Republicans and sixty-one Federalists in their seats, [but] one of the Republican seats was held by Peter Allen through an election fraud committed by . . . the clerk of Ontario County, [who] had wrongfully denied [Henry] Fellows of forty-nine votes in the town of Pennington.  The inspectors of election had filed a certificate with the clerk of the town that Henry Fellows had received those votes.  In the duplicate, sent to the county clerk, the candidate’s name was written Hen. Fellows.  The county clerk rejected these ballots, giving Allen a false majority of nineteen; and this corrupt official then certified that Allen had been elected.

Van Buren canvassed the Republicans in the Assembly who wanted to do the honest thing and seat the Federalist.  He argued that if the situation had been reversed, the Federalists would do what he was counseling: to keep Allen in his seat and let him vote on every measure until the Council of Appointment was selected; once that was done, Fellows could be seated . . .

Van Buren was seldom off the floor of the Assembly until the Council of Appointment had been chosen . . . For eight days the Republicans kept Fellows out of his seat, and Allen voted on all measures.  Every corrupt motion made by Henry Leavenworth, the Republican member from Delaware County who directed the sorry farce, was sustained by Daniel Cruger, the Republican Speaker.  After the Council of Appointment was chosen by the Republicans, the house . . . with only one negative vote, seated Fellows. . . . Allen was given a dinner before he left Albany.  This was the only price he received for his harlotry.

They don’t write ‘em like that any more, do they?