N.Y. Sen. Joseph L. Galiber (D -Bronx) won renomination with 61 percent of the vote in a hotly contested primary on Sept. 15. Because there is no Republican opponent, Galiber is expected to win in the general election this November. The senator wrote this article before his primary victory.
Senator Galiber represents part of the Bronx and part of Westchester County. His district office is 1 Fordham Plaza, Room 1102, Bronx, N.Y. 10458. His Albany office is Room 414, State Capitol Building, Albany, N.Y. 12247.
In an era when thoughtful ideological debates are routinely reduced to 30-second soundbites, and at a time in our history when virtually every public official wants to be considered a rough, tough, four-star general in the so-called "war on drugs," conventional wisdom would suggest that an elected official who speaks out in favor of drug legalization is well on the way to committing certain political suicide. But in my case, as I continue to wage a difficult primary election battle in the Bronx and New York state's suburban Westchester County, conventional wisdom seems to have gone awry.
As I write this article one week before New York primary voters go to the polls, I have no way of knowing whether this primary election will ultimately bring to an end my 24 years of service in the New York State Senate. But if I should lose this battle, my defeat will not stem from my very public criticism of the current drug "war" or from my proposal to regulate the sale of all presently illegal drugs. It will be a direct result of two related factors: the cynical and sometimes divisive wheeling and dealing that is all too often a hallmark of New York City politics, and a flawed state legislative reapportionment process that permits political powerbrokers to manipulate election districts for party advantage.
My opponent has attempted, without much success, to embarrass me for my support of the regulated sale of currently illicit drugs. But my stance on drug law reform, while important, has not been a major issue in the campaign. Unfortunately, given the flawed results of legislative redistricting and the sad realities of New York City politics, questions of ethnic divisiveness and minority group concerns have consumed most of the debate.
District Lines, Not Drug Laws, Fuel the Debate
As required by law, new State Senate and State Assembly districts (as well as New York Congressional districts) were created this year to reflect population shifts as recorded in the 1990 Federal census. This redistricting process is controlled by legislators who are members of the political parties holding majorities in the Senate and Assembly, and it is customary, regrettably, for these majority legislators to redraw district lines to protect elected officials of their own party. In New York, for example, the Senate's Republican majority has been able to create Senate districts whose voter registration enrollments favor the election of GOP candidates.
In the Bronx, a traditional Democratic stronghold, district lines were redrawn in one area with the specific goal of protecting the Senate's sole Republican representative in the borough. Yet at the same time, legislative map-makers were still required, party politics notwithstanding, to honor various state and federal constitutional rules and to meet the requirements of the federal Voting Rights Act — a civil rights law that helps to provide ethnic and racial minority candidates with the opportunity to run successfully for public office.
The result is that one Bronx district was redrawn to favor the re-election of the one white Republican senator, and the remaining districts were reconfigured to ensure that their populations were predominantly comprised of ethnic and racial minorities. In the end, I — as an African-American — was left with the choice of running for re-election in a district newly designed to provide Hispanic citizens with greater clout or to face off in a primary against a white Democratic incumbent and colleague in a district comprised predominantly of African-American residents.
I chose the latter path, and it has proved to be a choice that has led, sadly, to a significant division within the Bronx County Democratic party. I was initially encouraged by my opponent, Jeffrey R. Korman, and Bronx party officials to run for office in the new Hispanic district, but I refused — believing that such an action would violate the spirit of the Voting Rights Act and would lead to counterproductive intergroup tensions among black, Hispanic and white residents. I was, and am, dismayed that the political goal of protecting incumbents was given greater weight by the party than the vital public policy goal of ensuring equitable representation for minority citizens.
So in the end, after having worked with the Bronx County Democratic party for many years, I have joined with other minority legislators and concerned citizens in a challenge to a political organization I can no longer support. This is how I have come to find myself in a primary battle; it has not been a question of differences in ideology on important issues, it has been almost entirely a question of politics.
Setting the Record Straight on Drug Regulation
As many people interested in drug law reform already know, it is often very easy for those who disagree with us to misrepresent our views. As a public official who has introduced legislation in the New York State Senate to establish a system for the regulated sale of all drugs, I am well aware that those who disagree with my approach to addressing the drug and crime epidemic generally have the soundbites on their side. It is easy, for example, for an opponent to accuse me of "surrendering" to the substance abuse epidemic or to brand me as some kind of evil person who wants to make it easier for people to become crack addicts. A thoughtful discussion of possible alternatives to our nation's failed drug policies, on the other hand, does not lend itself as well to a 30-second spot on the 11 o'clock news.
During the campaign, my oppo- nent has called me irresponsible for proposing a system of regulated drug sales, but the charge has paled in the face of other issues. For example, my candidacy has received strong support from New York City Mayor David Dinkins and Congressman Charles B. Rangel — two ardent foes of regulated drug sales. While I have tangled with these two officials from time to time on drug policy issues, they chose to sup- port me in this election based on our long friendships and our mutual com- mitment to the principles of the Voting Rrghts Act. Our conflicting views on drug policies have not been an issue.
But while my stance on drug regu- lation has not grabbed the sensation- alist banner headlines my opponent might have preferred, my willingness to discuss openly the failures of cur- rent drug policies and to suggest alter- natives has not escaped the notice of several of New York City's major daily newspapers. In endorsing me, Newsday on Sept. 4 noted my "expertise in crimi- nal justice and substance abuse policy." The New York Times, in supporting me, said on Sept. 8 that my "under- standing of serious issues, particularly drug abuse, suggests an interest in the people of [my] district and not just its politics."
Part of the reason I was successful in gaining this support, and in pre venting my opponent from exploiting and misrepresenting my position on drug regulation, was my readiness to confront the issue head on and to make my side of the story known. I decided to send a mass mailing into the Bronx discussing my proposal, explaining how I came to my position and asking vot- ers to respond to a questionnaire I included on the issue. I wanted people to understand that I was offering a proposal — a study bill — and that I wanted their involvement in a concerted effort to fight back effectively against drugs, crime and violence in our community.
In the mailing, I pointed out that we spend millions of dollars every year to curb crime and drug abuse through ever more extensive law enforcement efforts, but that the problem is getting worse instead of better. I noted that, despite the enormous resources directed to the so-called "war on drugs," many of us continue to wonder how we can protect our children from drugs and the lure of illegal drug profits, whether we'll ever be able to walk safely on our neighborhood streets, and whether the arrest of yet another corner drug dealer will really make a difference in a multibillion dollar narcotics trade that people are literally dying to enter. At a time when drug treatment slots for addicts are woefully inadequate to meet the demand for services, and at a time when rival drug entrepreneurs are endangering all of our lives by engaging in shoot-outs to protect their profits, I asked my constituents to consider a proposal that would apply the rule of law to a lawless, violent drug marketplace.
Whether I win or lose in the upcoming election, I will continue to speak out on the need to reform our nation's current drug policies — policies that rely too heavily on police, prosecutors and prisons to address the proliferation of illegal drugs, and policies that fail to recognize that substance abuse should be treated as a public health problem and not as a law enforcement issue.