William F. Hammond Jr., New York Sun,
May 4, 2006
billionaire political impresario George Soros gambled $27
million on the campaign to defeat President Bush and came up
empty-handed. But no one should conclude that he has lost
his eye for a winning investment. The smaller wagers that he
and his family have placed on New York politics appear to be
paying off in spades.
After years of debate, state lawmakers just agreed to reduce
the penalties for drug crimes in New York, which have been
among the stiffest in the country.
In Albany County, voters just elected a maverick district
attorney who is promising to go easier on drug addicts and
keep a sharper eye on corruption at the state Capitol.
In the Legislature, leaders of both houses are pledging to
change the way they do business after two decades of late
budgets and legislative gridlock. And in the state Senate,
Democrats are threatening to take control for the first time
A common factor in all of these developments is Soros money.
With millions of dollars in strategically placed grants and
political contributions, the Soros family is quietly
reshaping the state.
Nothing illustrates their impact better than the campaign to
soften New York's anti-drug laws. Pushed through by Governor
Rockefeller during a wave of heroin abuse in the 1970s, the
statutes imposed lengthy prison sentences for possession and
sale of narcotics. Someone caught with four ounces of heroin
or cocaine faced a minimum sentence of 15 years to life and
a maximum term of 25 years to life.
Earlier this month, after years of fruitless debate,
Governor Pataki and the Legislature agreed to an overhaul of
these penalties that doubled the weight thresholds for the
most serious drug-related felonies, took away the
possibility of life terms for nonviolent crimes, and gave
about 400 current inmates an opportunity for early release.
Of the many activist groups that campaigned for these
changes, none played a more pivotal role than the Drug
Policy Alliance, a New York City-based group founded and
largely financed by Mr. Soros and his Open Society
Institute. The alliance and its affiliates spent more than
$100,000 lobbying at Albany over the past two years. In June
2003, when the governor and legislative leaders brought
hip-hop entrepreneur Russell Simmons into their late-night,
closed-door negotiations on the Rockefeller drug laws, a
lobbyist for the Drug Policy Alliance, Deborah Small, was at
Mr. Simmons' side.
On another front, Mr. Soros's Open Society Institute has
been a major supporter of the Brennan Center for Justice at
New York University's School of Law, contributing at least
$3.6 million over the past four years. This summer, the
Brennan Center published a study identifying New York's
state government as the most dysfunctional in the nation - a
finding that has been quoted in newspaper stories and
editorials ever since, adding considerably to the movement
for reform at Albany. Reacting to recommendations in the
Brennan report, both the Republican majority leader of the
Senate, Joseph Bruno, and the Democratic speaker of the
Assembly, Sheldon Silver, have promised to change the
procedural rules in their respective houses.
The Soros money has flowed not just to activist groups, but
also to political campaigns.
the political arm of the Drug Policy Alliance - also founded
and financed in part by Mr. Soros - indirectly contributed
$81,500 to a candidate for district attorney of Albany
County, David Soares, who made his opposition to the
Rockefeller drug laws a centerpiece of his campaign.
When Mr. Soares defeated the incumbent district attorney in
a Democratic primary, and went on to win the general
election, elected officials statewide took notice.
In legislative elections, meanwhile, Mr. Soros and his
children emerged as the most important backers of Democrats
running for the state Senate, contributing a total of
$377,500 to their campaign accounts. That money helped
Senate Democrats add at least three seats to their minority,
with a fourth race still too close to call. As a result, the
Senate GOP - which has controlled the house every year but
one since 1938 - will see the 38-24 advantage it had at the
beginning of this year shrink to 35-27 or 34-28 come
January. The minority leader of the Senate, David Paterson
of Harlem, predicts his party will win enough seats to take
over in 2008 or 2010.
Most contributions in legislative races come from interest
groups with a state in state affairs, and they generally
give most of their money to the officials in the best
position to help their causes - which is to say the majority
parties in the Senate and Assembly. This is one reason why
Democrats, who outnumber Republicans 5-3 among registered
voters in New York, have been unable to claim the Senate. By
giving so much money to the Senate minority, and largely
ignoring the major players, the Soros family represents a
singular threat to the status quo.
The deputy minority leader of the Senate, Eric Schneiderman
of Manhattan, said that threat helps to explain why the
Senate GOP agreed to this month's compromise on the
Rockefeller drug laws.
"These guys are professionals," Mr. Schneiderman said. "They
don't hold onto a majority in an overwhelmingly Democratic
state by being slouches. They took immediate notice of the
contributions, and they will do what they can do to try and
neutralize the commitment."
The people campaigning to change the drug laws believe this
month's legislation - which they view as a partial victory -
would not have happened if not for the electoral victories
by Mr. Soares and the Senate Democrats.
"It was not because people had a change in heart; it's
because people had a change in political climate," said the
public policy director of the Drug Policy Alliance, Michael
Blain. "It's a shift in power. And power is something
hardball New York politicians understand. It's the only
thing they understand."
A spokesman for the Senate Republicans, Mark Hansen,
disputed this analysis.
"We have been discussing the Rockefeller drug laws for a
number of years," Mr. Hansen said. "We continued having
discussions with the governor and the Assembly throughout
the summer and the fall and ultimately reached agreement in
December. It was an ongoing process that culminated in the
reform law that was enacted this month."
Whatever the Senate GOP's motivations, its actions on the
drug laws probably weren't enough to convince the Soroses to
put away their checkbooks.
"The Soroses' support for David Paterson and Eric
Schneiderman and the effort to take the Senate for Democrats
is a long-term commitment," a spokesman for the family,
Michael Vachon, told The New York Sun last week.
"They understand the dynamics of Albany," Mr. Schneiderman
said. "They are not going to be fooled by mini-reforms into
backing away from broader reforms. They're not in politics
to bring about small steps toward reform."