In his state of the state address this past week Gov. Paterson included the so-called “good government” groups in the portion of his speech where he lambasted the “chronic and continuing experiences of outside influence and inside decay.” He later clarified his criticsm, explaining that these organizations use their not-for-profit status to hide from the public the names of those who fund them while they often act as political as they groups they criticize.
One way we know that Paterson hit a raw nerve was by the responses his comments engenered. NYPIRG’s Blair Horner told Susan Arbetter on The Capitol Pressroom that Paterson’s comments were inappropriate because he made them during the “state of the state” address and Dick Dadey of Citizens Union told the AP that his organization makes more of their finances public than elected officials do, as if that absolved all such groups from the accusation.
The fact of the matter is that NYPIRG, Citizens Union, Common Cause, League of Women Voters, etc. are SPECIAL INTEREST GROUPS as much as the Energy Association, the Business Council or the Medical Society. Our constitution guarantees people the right to organize and to lobby government to address their grievances. Therefore, there is nothing wrong with being a special interest group. What deserves criticism, however, is to pretend that one is NOT a special interest group while demanding that others follow rules than you are not willing to follow yourself. That said it is unlikey that the governor will be able to legislate closer scrutiny of these groups’ finances.
The other thing that Paterson said which I agree with is that the press that covers Albany often treat spokespeople for good government groups as if they were objective, impartial observers. I wonder if some of the people who staff these organizations recognize how often they hide behind their “public interest” label when in fact they are carrying water for political (i.e., partisan) causes. A perfect example is the positions many of these groups have taken on election law reforms to the benefit of the Democratic Party, as discussed the Francis S. Barry’s The Scandal of Reform (Rutgers U. Press, 2009).
Many of these groups claim to speak for very large constituencies that they in fact do NOT represent. Take the “League of Women Voters” as an example. It’s a fine group. My mother was a member. But how is it that any organization can claim to represent or speak for “women voters” as a whole?
I wish someone in the press would analyze LWV’s membership rolls and their policy positions and then tell us who they represent. Are they middle-aged college-educated women from upper middle class backgrounds? Are they young upwardly mobile women from lower middle class backgrounds? Are they primarily non-working women over thirty who are married to doctors and lawyers? Are they largely a self-perpetuating staff-dominated group which gets virtually no input from their members? The press should NOT take the opinions of LWV seriously until LWV tells us who they represent, how they derive their funding and especially how they come to adopt certain policy positions.
Stay tuned for more commentary on the topics raised by the Governor’s state of the state.