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The Soros Factor

By William F. Hammond Jr., New York Sun,
 May 4, 2006

The 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 since 1965.

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.

This summer, 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."