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Governor Kathy Hochul nominated former New York State Supreme Court Judge Hector LaSalle on December 22, 2022, to be the Chief Judge on the New York Court of Appeals, New York’s highest court. LaSalle has a conservative record on reproductive rights and labor issues during his previous tenure and was the most conservative option available to Hochul on the commission shortlist for the seat. The nomination was even supported by the Chair of the New York Democratic Party, Jay Jacobs, despite LaSalle’s right-leaning values, as seen in his judicial record.
Currently, The New York State Court of Appeals is controlled by a narrow de facto conservative faction, despite all appointments having been made by Democratic governors. While nominations like these may seem like an anomaly, they have actually been a historical norm. They have been endorsed and pushed for by the party bosses of New York, who seek to keep their own power in place under guises such as “racial diversity,” especially since many party bosses like the notorious Luis A. Miranda Jr. and Rubén Díaz Jr. (the former Borough President) of the Bronx, are people of color. For instance, LaSalle’s nomination appears to have been made at the request of Miranda, as LaSalle is a close ally to Miranda. Despite New York being safely Democrat, former Governor Andrew Cuomo was one of the foremost proponents of this machinery, even propping up a Republican majority in the New York State Senate for years. This allowed him to maintain his power and protect himself from the scrutiny of many scandals during his tenure until the Trump era, as Cuomo positioned himself as the embodiment of Trump resistance.
With Cuomo’s disgraced resignation after his numerous scandals were finally uncovered, many hoped Hochul would be different. Sadly, this is not the case. She originally named Brian Benjamin, a member of the New York State Senate, as her successor as Lieutenant Governor, who was indicted on corruption charges not more than six months later. She had also previously named a conservative-leaning judge earlier that year to the Court of Appeals. Bogged down by the corrupt appointments, the state party apparatus lost races in New York City and then nearly lost statewide races in deep blue New York. This likely cost the national party control of the United States House of Representatives through losses of five seats Democrats won at the presidential level in 2020.
The origin of these political machines dates back to Tammany Hall. Tammany Hall dominated New York politics throughout the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century. The political machine pandered to Italian and Irish Catholic immigrants to win their votes, eventually installing them into positions of power. The taint of this corruption led to the election of many “Rockefeller Republicans” who were liberals on social policy and moderates on fiscal policy. Their main objective was to clean up the corruption of the machines by ensuring “good governance.” They acted as a check on Democratic corruption, and only policies that weren’t a reflection of the corruption would be passed. This is also how the New York State Senate came to be controlled by Republicans for many years before 2019. The Rockefeller Republicans soon died out as they eventually became the embodiment of “Republicans In Name Only,” with the national Republican Party and state Republican party now run by full-throated conservatives. Still, modern-day iterations of Tammany Hall corruption live on in the many county machines that make up the state machine. Counties have local party bosses that choose their nominees, which in many cases, is tantamount to an election, though they are not necessarily invincible. These bosses have been known to take bribes for nominations, resulting in several indictments of party bosses.
The corruption of these county machines feeds into the state Democratic Party. The state party can nominate statewide officials and effectively bypass any form of the primary process involving voters, which can conflict with the interests of the voter. These party bosses can also control political appointments and policy in Albany and City Hall through their crucial support and voter turnout apparatus. The aim of these party bosses is simple: entrench their own rule and those of their friends, even if it harms their constituents. Albany and local politics have for so long operated within these machines with no desire to reform.
The failures of machine politics in New York are abundant. The state court of appeals is controlled by conservatives in a deeply liberal state and has shown no restraint at hostility toward individual rights. Legislation such as marriage equality and protecting reproductive rights took much longer in New York than in similar blue states. The party boss machines are incompetent as well, failing to get the aforementioned ballot measures passed and making New York 10 points closer than the perennial swing state of Pennsylvania in the gubernatorial elections of 2022. Instead of heeding lessons like the “shellacking” 2022 was for the New York Democratic Party, elected officials have continued to move forward on a legislative agenda that has struggled to be reflective of the desires of the people.
The biggest indictment of the failure of machine politics was the loss of five seats in the United States House of Representatives in 2022, costing Democrats a House majority. The machine did not run any campaign for its members and instead attacked perceived threats; for example, they successfully defeated the socialist Democratic nominee for Mayor of Buffalo in 2021. Machine bosses were attacked as well, as seen in Harlem and the Bronx unsuccessfully attempting to primary pro-reform Democrats in August 2022. The failure to win these seats resulted in a House controlled by a disunified Republican majority, resulting in the first deadlocked Speaker of the United States House of Representatives election since December 1923. This situation was dangerous because it rendered the House incapable of passing legislation. With Congress unable to legislate, any pressing matter such as a government shutdown, reauthorizing appropriations for the military, or lifting the debt ceiling cannot be done.
The only way to fix the flaws of the machines is to purge them of their corruption. However, members of the machine are actively willing to destroy reformers and burn their apparatus in the process. The problems of corrupt machines unaccountable to the people are clear. We must elect good government reformers who will actively represent the interests of their constituents and burn down the machine, no matter the cost or the pains of doing so (even if it means temporarily losing areas if we have to win them by adopting contradictory values). We must then pass government and ethics reform that will ensure our elected officials are held accountable, thus allowing people to have a true say in their government. It is time we end the machines forever.