News & Opinion » Editor's Notebook

Let’s call it what it was: The Cabal Act of 2019


Every contested election has winners and losers.

We tend to focus on the winners, what with their promises of a brighter tomorrow and all. But it is the losers on whom our democracy hinges.

Think about it. What would happen if the losers didn't go quietly?

"Graceful concessions by losing candidates constitute a sort of glue that holds the polity together, providing a cohesion that's lacking in less well-established democracies," said Shaun Bowler, a political science professor at the University of California Riverside.

Bowler studies democracies and his research suggests they collapse without graceful losers.

Which brings us to Republican Monroe County legislators, who displayed as much grace in the wake of the drubbing their party took on Election Day as an elephant on ice skates.

After watching their majority in the County Legislature shrink to a single seat and a Democrat win a county executive race for the first time in over 30 years, Republicans played hardball and introduced the CABLE Act of 2019.

The "Checks and Balances for Legislative Equality" bill sought to, among other things, weaken the authority of the incoming county executive, Adam Bello, by giving the legislature approval over his entire cabinet.

In that sense, as one astute CITY reader pointed out, the bill was more cabal than CABLE.

What happened here, as has happened elsewhere, was a phenomenon Harvard political scientist Daniel Zimblatt detailed in a book he co-authored, "How Democracies Die."

For most of the last century, he noted, Republicans and Democrats regarded each other as legitimate. They operated with the understanding that election results were neither permanent nor intolerable. The losers accepted the outcome and prepared for the next election.

In recent years, though, that thinking has changed, particularly among Republicans. Zimblatt theorized it was because Republicans tended to enjoy more status within society historically.

When an election threatens that status, Zimblatt found, there's an impulse among some politicians to reject the results and upend the system that produced the outcome. Losing ceases to be acceptable and instead becomes a catastrophe.

The key to the system running smoothly, Zimblatt argued, is for the losers to not act on impulse and instead act with forbearance, or self-restraint.

Increasingly, though, Republicans across the country have regarded unfavorable election outcomes as their Waterloo.

The Cabal Act was just one example.

The bill was met with outrage in Monroe County. Democrats and Republicans alike expressed their fury on social media.

Cowed Republican legislators eventually withdrew the bill, but in doing so suggested it would surface again, in one form or another, next year.

Bring it on. From a good-government standpoint, the Cabal Act wasn't all bad.

It contained a provision to roll back the deadline for the county executive to release the budget for the next fiscal year to October 15 from November 15.

Of course, mid-October had been the deadline for decades until Republican legislators changed it in 2006 to enable the Republican county executive at the time to release her budget, and the potentially controversial elements of it, after Election Day.

Another Cabal Act provision required the county executive to respond to written correspondence from the legislature within 30 days. That seems reasonable. Of course, Democratic legislators have complained for years that they never received such a courtesy.

Indeed, there was some good in the Cabal Act.

What made the Cabal Act unpalatable, other than it weakening the powers of the county executive, was that Republicans either never played by the rules the bill proposed or had changed them to suit their political needs at the time.

"As soon as politicians start down that road, it also becomes harder for citizens to turn back," Bowler said. "If politicians aren't going to play by the rules, then why should we play by the laws that they put in place for the rest of us?"

Some of the Cabal Act provisions were either always good government - period - or always politics. The trouble was, Republican leaders could not say which was which.

David Andreatta is CITY's editor. He can be reached at [email protected].