Ed Koch has always been a man of many parts, some of them awful. He bragged about saving the city from "the clubhouse" after the fiscal crisis of the 1970s, then let it slide into corruption and scandal under his own watch in the 1980s. He ran one of the worst campaigns for governor in the history of New York state - the one where he started off by complaining that there were no good restaurants in Albany. He endorsed George W. Bush for President.
I co-authored a critical biography of Koch back in the day, and I never stopped shaking my head over the ego, the unending self-absorption of the guy. He'd be sitting at dinner in a restaurant with friends, and if the talk and attention turned to someone else, Koch would begin to slide slowly down into his seat, wilting from the effect of five minutes of inattention.
But you can't say he never had a good idea.
Koch has organized New York Uprising, a reform group that's trying to get candidates for state office to sign a pledge to support a few fairly simple reforms. The most notable is that when the boundaries for legislative districts are redrawn after the 2010 census, the work be done in a non-partisan way.
Control over redistricting is the most important thing in the world for state legislators. War, famine, bankruptcy, earthquake - all these things are bad, but far preferable to losing control over which voters are crammed into which district.
It's because of the state senate's ability to control the lines for the state senate that the Republicans dominated the upper chamber long after they'd lost their grip on everything else in New York. And the Democrats in the Assembly let them, because the most important thing for the Democrats in the Assembly was not having their party control the policies and priorities of state government, but having their own folks draw the Assembly lines, protecting each and every member from the inconvenience of competition.
And the net result is that the number of state legislators who run for re-election and lose is approximately as large as the number of state legislators who are serious contenders for the Nobel Peace Prize.
New York Uprising has collected a remarkable list of trustees, beginning with former governor Mario Cuomo and former mayor Rudy Giuliani.
When a candidate for state legislature signs a pledge to back the New York Uprising agenda (which also includes ethics reform and more responsible budgeting), he or she goes on a Roll of Heroes. This doesn't get much attention in the city, but in smaller towns and rural areas it can look pretty impressive. "Reform Group Names Candidate Ritchie a Hero of Reform," announced the local paper in Potsdam when Patty Ritchie, a Republican running for the Senate, signed on.
The fact that a candidate signed doesn't necessarily mean he or she is one of the good guys. State Senator Pedro Espada Jr., the most loathsome Democrat in Albany, is a Hero of Reform. Sort of.
But it's still an easy way to identify the people you definitely do not want to send back to the capitol. If they can't buy into this, they're hopeless. Check it out.