2 Dems fight to be the face of Downtown in State Senate
By Josh Rogers
When Martin Connor was first elected to the State Senate 30 years ago, his present-day challenger wasn’t even born. In many ways this year’s Democratic primary is a study in contrasts — the Albany veteran versus the young challenger with new ideas.
There are differences in tone and approach between Connor, 63, and Daniel Squadron, 28, a political consultant and former aide to Sen. Chuck Schumer, but there are also a surprisingly large number of similarities on the issues.
Both favor same-sex marriage, stronger rent protections, traffic pricing and government reforms like non-partisan commissions to draw legislative lines. Both predict the Democrats will capture the Senate this November and each says he is in a unique position to make sure Senate Democrats resist the temptation to keep the rules the same once they get the majority.
“There is going to be a moment of reorganization and there is going to be a moment when the Senate’s going to decide whether it creates itself as a functioning legislature or whether it makes cosmetic change,” Squadron said in a recent interview with editors and reporters from Community Media, owner of Downtown Express, The Villager and Gay City News.
“If I beat a 30-year incumbent who used to be the minority leader, then those folks who are making a strategic, as opposed to a moral decision, will have a lot of incentive to make a strategic decision towards reform,” he added.
Connor said he and his Democratic colleagues have been promising change in Albany for too long for him to let his colleagues break their promises when they finally have the chance to make it happen.
“I’m not going to quietly acquiesce at this stage,” Connor said in a Community Media interview. He said he’d tell any senator reneging on reform: “I’m having a press conference. If it embarrasses you, well you want to not be embarrassed — join me at the press conference.”
But later in the same interview, he said this approach has not been his style in the past. When asked for examples of times when he has taken a strong stand, and for an explanation as to why other Downtown politicians are mentioned more often as leaders on various issues, Connor said, “I don’t look to do a press conference every Sunday. I don’t look to brag about everything I’ve done. I’ve passed over 100 bills into law and that’s not bad for somebody in the minority. It’s quite good.”
He said he was the main sponsor of about 120 bills that became law. He mentioned several he’s most proud of including the 1995 comprehensive law that provided incentives to Financial District building owners to convert outdated vacant offices to apartments or to upgrade them. The others were a law to require traffic to stop while schools buses are loading and unloading, which he said was strongly opposed by the Koch administration 20 years ago; a law enabling care givers of the disabled to ride the subways free with their charges; and a measure granting podiatry students access to low-interest loans for their entire four-year education.
In recent weeks, the two candidates sat down for hour-plus meetings with Community Media, and then fleshed out their views further in telephone interviews.
Winning the Democratic primary Sept. 9 is considered by most political observers to be tantamount to victory in the 25th State Senate District, which includes most of Lower Manhattan, the East Village and several Brooklyn neighborhoods, including Brooklyn Heights, Carroll Gardens and part of Williamsburg. The primary winner will face Republican John Chromczak, 37, a medical technologist and Financial District resident.
Even on an issue where there appears to be a clear distinction — continuing mayoral control of the school system — the differences between Connor and Squadron lessen when you look deeper.
At a City Hall rally a few weeks ago on school overcrowding attended by both candidates, Connor said he favored ending mayoral control when it comes up for renewal next year in the state Legislature, but then he subsequently said he didn’t know if there was a better person or group to be in charge.
“Maybe ultimately the mayor ought to be in control, but it shouldn’t be unlimited power,” Connor said. Both candidates, as it turns out, want to give parents more of a voice in decisions.
Connor said one of the reasons he is considering ending mayoral control of schools is the city’s “abysmal failure” planning for Lower Manhattan’s population growth. He said the state provided an additional $1.2 billion for city schools the last two years and the mayor has not used it well, nor should he get high marks in education.
“People forget the school bus fiasco and the cell phone controversy,” Connor said. “They’re kind of riding high now on test scores, but you know there’s a lot of criticism of ‘teach to the test.’”
He is co-chairperson of the State Senate’s new school governance task force and will help lead a public hearing in Lower Manhattan for parents next Wed., Aug. 6, from 5 – 8 p.m. at 250 Broadway on the 19th floor.
Squadron, who worked on the city’s school empowerment zone program for part of 2006, said mayoral control would work well with meaningful input from parents.
“We need a structure that empowers parents and communities while maintaining clear lines of accountability that we see with mayoral control,” said Squadron.
He favors giving the parent Community Education Councils the power to evaluate superintendents and to make recommendations to the schools chancellor. Squadron also wants to reduce the size of large school districts such as District 2, which includes Lower Manhattan as well as parts of Midtown and the Upper East Side. He said district lines should relate to neighborhoods, and community board boundaries would be a good guideline for the new school districts.
Squadron wants to explore tax incentives and requirements for developers building in neighborhoods with overcrowded classes to provide space for schools. He said Connor voted to keep empty, Upstate prisons open at a cost of $150 million over five years — money that would have been better spent on new schools.
Connor gave contradictory explanations for his prison vote. On Tuesday he said he wanted to close the prisons too, but Gov. David Paterson “caved” to the Republicans and allowed them to include the prisons in the overall budget, which included $643 million of desperately-needed money for city schools. When told the school money was not in the bill, Connor said Wednesday that Paterson officials gave assurances that they would “phase down these prisons” by transferring inmates, thus driving down the costs.
He said he was in a “Catch-22” and had he voted against the bill, he would have been unfairly attacked for voting against important allocations including $202 million for Workers Compensation, $3 million for civil legal services for things like landlord-tenant fights and $22 million for voter education. Connor though, was willing to make this attack against Squadron, who would have voted with the eight Democratic senators who opposed the prisons.
“You can quote me, say it’s a shame he doesn’t think civil legal services and Workers Compensation is important,” Connor said.
Both candidates supported Mayor Bloomberg’s congestion pricing plan to charge drivers $8 to enter Midtown or Lower Manhattan during busy times, although they had criticisms of some of the specifics, such as the provision that would have allowed many New Jersey tunnel drivers to avoid a congestion fee. Both think the issue of traffic pricing is likely to come back for debate soon, given the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s severe capital budget deficit.
In the interviews, Connor spoke more negatively about congestion pricing than Squadron did. Yet, he is also more bullish on East River bridge tolls, which has much less support citywide, particularly in the Brooklyn part of the district.
“I think we have to revisit them,” Connor said of bridge tolls. “I think we really have to consider it.”
Although he backed the mayor’s plan, Connor supported the decision not to bring it to a vote in April because the measure had no chance.
“There was no way the leaders could have brought it to the floor and twisted arms,” he said. “It would have been a total embarrassment.”
Squadron said in the face of a massive transit deficit and traffic problems, Albany, instead of working on a solution, chose the worst option — no action. “Nothing happened because they let the perfect be the enemy of the good,” he said.
`He also criticized Connor’s support for cutting off revenue to the city by voting to end the commuter tax and for vacancy decontrol, a system in which apartments are removed from rent stabilization and rent control. Both votes were in the late ’90s when Connor was minority leader.
Connor said the commuter tax had little chance for renewal and was due to expire anyway. He said his vote to end the tax a few months early strengthened the chances of Democratic senatorial candidates in the suburbs and did not cost the city much additional money.
Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno made it clear he was ready to let rent controls end altogether in 1997 and Connor said he wasn’t involved at all in the negotiations for the final deal, but he voted for it because it was better than no rent protections, particularly since he was advised that people under rent control would have been vulnerable to drastic rent increases after a month.
Squadron also criticizes Connor for being one of only a few Senate Democrats to vote against the statewide ban on smoking in bars.
Connor said “it pre-empted New York City’s law which I thought was a better law….It has created the nuisance I feared it would.”
The city ban was better because it allowed bar owners the option to build self-contained smoking rooms which employees could not be forced to enter, Connor said. He said several city tavern owners said they were about to build the rooms when the state law was passed five years ago. Connor said without any bars that allow smoking, customers smoke on the street keeping residents up at night.
Connor and his campaign aides have criticized Squadron for many things including being too young and inexperienced.
Squadron was a special assistant to Schumer from 2003 to 2005 and in 2006 he helped the senator write “Positively American,” a best selling blueprint of how the Democrats can win back middle-class voters and the White House. Most recently, he was a consultant at Knickerbocker SKD, a political consulting firm where he worked from last summer until January when he began campaigning full time. Squadron was also the communications director for the campaign to pass the Transportation Bond Act, a $3 billion referendum for transit improvements including the Second Avenue subway.
Squadron said he’s proud of his work for the transit line, but he does not sound naïve, despite his youth: “I’d like to see the Second Avenue subway make it down to Hanover Sq. in my lifetime — that might be a bit ambitious.”