New York’s Anti-Terror Express

State Pols Ride a Troubling Crime Agenda Toward Re-Election

Critics are desperate to find ways to engage the public in what is, in essence, a highly technical debate. One hope lies in connecting the harsh mandatory sentences under the bioterror bill with the widely criticized sentences in the so-called Rockefeller drug laws. The 1973 statutes, enacted in a time of public anxiety over drugs, have recently been attacked by liberals and the Republican governor for landing black and Latino drug offenders in jail for disproportionately long periods. What's more, the anti-terror proposals carry First Amendment concerns that critics hope will appeal even to those who consider themselves immune from criminal statutes.

But if Pataki wants to remain the "governor whose phone calls will be returned from the White House," as Bush said during his $1.5 million fundraising visit here on behalf of the governor last week, he might well follow his leader and stay tough on terror. Moreover, in financially strapped times that preclude showy capital projects, the governor and pals could opt to focus vote-winning efforts on statutory changes that cost nothing, at least in dollars.

So far, few in Albany have "thrown themselves on the tracks in front of anti-terrorism legislation," says one Albany crime-law lobbyist. Spitzer's allegiance with the governor has blunted partisan objections, not that anyone seems eager to take him on in this area. Neither of the top Democrats vying to oppose Pataki, State Comptroller Carl McCall and Andrew Cuomo, returned calls for comment. And a spokesperson for Speaker Silver said last week that he had "not yet expressed a position." One Spitzer supporter hopes that non-opinion will turn into the sort of 11th-hour deal associated with Albany: "On the last day of the session, George is going to say, 'I want the anti-terror bills.' Shelley's going to say, 'What'll you give me for them?' And that's how it could happen."

But critics take as a hopeful sign the bills' lack of movement in the assembly so far, although the session is only about a month old; the proposals went back to the Republican-led senate, where they were introduced, last week after stagnating in the other house. The back-and-forth is expected to continue. Indeed, the legislature's trademark dithering could, in an ironic boon for good-government advocates, keep anything from happening at all.

Research assistance: Joshua LeSieur

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