Photo Credit: Jewish Press

March Madness Comes To Albany

There’s March madness in college basketball and then there’s another version of March madness at the state Capitol where the madness this month is shrouded in advocacy, lobbying, finalizing a state budget, fundraising and politicking.

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Jewish groups and individuals from Jewish organizations swept into lawmakers offices and cornered them in the Assembly and Senate lobbies to seek more money for everything from social services aid to aid for secular studies at private schools as well as tax breaks for parents paying private-school tuition and taxpayers donating money to private and public schools across New York. Leaders from one group, the Jewish Community Council of Marine Park, wanted lawmakers to know that they offer free computer classes and would like to spread the good will into other parts of the Big Apple. Much of this advocacy and lobbying is happening quietly and under the radar in private meetings and without much fanfare.

Lubavitcher Rebbe’s Birthday Celebrated by Lawmakers – Again

It’s been nearly a quarter century since Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, zt”l, passed away at his Crown Heights home after serving in his leadership role for 44 years. The Lubavitch Youth Organization, run by Rabbi Shmuel Butman, has celebrated the Rebbe’s birthday each year since 1995 with a proclamation of the equivalent days of learning for every year the Rebbe would have been old. This year he would be 116 years old so there is 116 days of learning written into the proclamation. This year Assemblyman David Weprin (D – Hollis, Queens) sponsored the document commemorating the Rebbe’s birthday. “Rabbi Schneerson’s educational activities throughout the globe have enriched and strengthened the religious, educational, cultural, moral and ethical fibers of all citizens of the world,” Weprin noted.

Assemblyman David Weprin (left) with Rabbi Shmuel Butman putting money in the pushka.

Butman opened the Assembly and Senate sessions with a prayer, for which he is offered a stipend from each house. During his remarks Butman explained, “this is a mission to do goodness and kindness. When we give one dollar we are doing something right, we are doing something good. We are going to invite you to put in an offering of one dollar in the pushka. I don’t want you to get scared this is not a fundraising mission for if it was we would ask you for much more than one dollar,” Butman told the lawmakers. He then holds the pushka after he ascends from the rostrum and state lawmakers approach him with a dollar to insert in the wooden pushka. Approximately two dozen lawmakers from both houses put a dollar in the pushka. The Assembly Sergeant-at-Arms Wayne Jackson even got into the act. Butman is the only person ever allowed to ask for donations from state lawmakers in the Assembly and the Senate chambers while session is in progress. Quite the honor! Assembly leadership turns away and does not prevent this from happening. Now that’s power!

Jewish Candidate for State Comptroller

Out of 14 declared candidates for various statewide offices only two are Jewish. Eric Schneiderman, the incumbent attorney general is one. A challenger to incumbent Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli is Jonathan Trichter is the other. The 47-year old Upper East Side resident reflected on his Jewish background when interviewed for this column.

“I struggle with my soul with great respect for the Jewish faith and Jewish men and women who have faith,” Trichter said. “I hope one day my faith returns to me. In the meantime I do feel very Jewish and I’m certainly very pro-Israel. I was raised in a very conservative Jewish environment. I grew up as a conservative Jew.”

As for the Office of State Comptroller, Trichter comes across as a clever candidate who enjoys keeping his audience in suspense. The state Comptroller has the sole fiduciary responsibility over a $200 billion pension fund.

“I’ve always looked at the comptroller’s office as an undervalued and underutilized asset that could do tremendous good for New Yorkers,” Trichter lamented. “As all defined benefit pension plan it carries a tremendous amount of risk. The first goal I would have is to manage and reduce that risk and to be honest and forthright about it.

“New York should claim its front runner position as the financial capital of the world and fix what is a broken public pension system by being more truthful about systemic problems. We need to figure out how to secure the future for New York retirees that have the risk we currently carry.”

Trichter points out that New York state is awash in debt with $63.7 billion in outstanding bonds, $35 billion in pension debt and $80 billion in OPEB debt (other post-employment benefits). That’s close to $180 billion of unfunded debt from the three sources, according to Trichter. That would translate to $9,474 for each state resident to pay off the debt.

“This should not be a political office. It’s a professional office with a very technical, complex mandate to serve as the chief fiscal officer in the state,” Trichter notes. “My background in public finance and public pension restructuring and policy is a unique set of skills that I hope makes me an attractive candidate for the job based on the merits.

“Certainly the state Comptroller’s office is not at the forefront of our thinking when we go to the ballot booths,” Trichter continued. “That is a tragedy because a more effective and experienced Comptroller can do a lot of good. I do have several issues that I’m confident will punch through and grab people’s attention. Where issues normally connected to the Comptroller’s office will cause people’s eyes to glaze over, I actually have a few issues that I will highlight on the campaign that I think will make their eyes bulge.”

Trichter is currently enrolled as a Democrat but wants to run against DiNapoli on the Republican and Conservative party lines. He has garnered the support of the state chairmen of both parties. Being an enrolled democrat, Trichter could also mount a primary challenge to DiNapoli. “Anything’s possible Marc, anything’s possible,” Trichter said. He currently works for MAEVA Group, which is owned by businessman Harry Wilson, a millionaire who ran for state Comptroller against DiNapoli, as a Republican, in 2010.

Governor Cuomo Rails Against New York City Ineptitude

Governor Andrew Cuomo is on a tear about inefficiencies running amok in New York City. In a recent interview he picked on three topics – Rikers Island, the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) and public school funding.

He says rebuilding Rikers Island, a city-run jail with a 5,000 inmate population on a 500-acre plot of land in the shadows of LaGuardia Airport, should not take 10 years as Mayor Bill de Blasio is proposing.

“Taking 10 years to shut down Rikers Island and build a new jail is not acceptable,” Cuomo asserted. “It’s going to take five years to rebuild LaGuardia Airport. You have some jail cells on Rikers Island that don’t lock so the inmate can open the cell whenever they want. The federal government said the jail is an ongoing civil rights violation and it is still being operated. Do you know what 10 years means? You don’t really want to do it. There’s no political will. Ten years is two mayors from now, three city councils so it means never.”

Then there is the NYCHA problem. Cuomo recently visited rat-infested, heat-deprived apartments to make his point.

When it comes to helping poor people there is very little political will,” Cuomo said. “Four years to replace a boiler. They’re not sure if there is lead paint in the walls or if the abatement was done? It’s not only illegal and unconstitutional, it’s a disgrace.”

Cuomo says he is on the verge of declaring a state of emergency for NYCHA in an effort to bypass the bureaucracy. “That way those responsible can hire an independent contractor, give them free rein so they don’t have to deal with the NYCHA bureaucracy and let them go to work.”

As for school funding, Cuomo is irked by the seemingly lack of accountability by the city Board of Education as to who gets state aid and why. “We don’t know how much money the failing schools get versus the rich schools.”

And added to the substance is the political rhetoric to gain favor in the minority and poorer communities.

“I don’t care if they’re poor or if they’re minority, they’re New Yorkers and they’re not being treated fairly,” Cuomo exclaimed. “The poor always get the short end of the stick. They don’t have the money to donate to the campaigns, there’s not a big voter turnout, they don’t have powerful friends, and the poor and the minorities always get the short end of the stick. I see my job as putting my thumb on the scale of social justice.”

If all this sounds like the governor is blaming de Blasio, think again.

“It’s an indictment against the system and its people,” Cuomo told The Jewish Press. “Where’s everyone’s moral compass? When they say no heat, lead paint, where’s the moral outrage that says we won’t allow that to exist? It shouldn’t just be the activists. We’re New Yorkers. It should be all of us.”

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