Out of the Heart of Darkness: Following the Attacks on the World Trade Center, the New York Legislature Lost No Time Passing Disaster Aid and Anti-Terrorism Bills. an Unexpected Outcome Was a New Camaraderie Not Seen in Decades

Article excerpt

New York State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver was at his home on the East Side of Manhattan when the first of two terrorist-guided planes hit the World Trade Center--one of the most prominent structures in his district.

"I could actually hear the plane crashing into the building," recalls Silver, who lives less than a mile away from the site. "I thought some kind of accident was afoot. When I heard the second one, and then turned on the TV and actually saw it happen, it was a moment of complete disbelief."

The horrific event resonated with the Democratic speaker in very personal ways. Years ago, his district office was located in Two World Trade center, a gleaming glass and steel skyscraper that collapsed along with its twin not long after both were struck by the hijacked commercial airliners. An ambulance that had belonged to a volunteer Jewish ambulance corps and was dedicated to the memory of Silver's parents was crushed beneath the falling debris. Its occupants escaped injured, but alive.

Two days later, Silver was in Albany presiding over a rare joint session of the Legislature along with Governor George Pataki and Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno, both Republicans. The relationship of these three men, which could be described as acrimonious at best, had deteriorated even further in recent months, leaving the state virtually deadlocked on a budget, as well as on countless pieces of legislation. But on this day, the leaders spoke of putting aside their long-simmering political differences and partisanship to focus on a greater goal--rebuilding the state's economic engine, New York City.

"I have seen the heart of darkness," Silver said at the Sept. 13 session. "We must stand united as one state, as one people, and move confidently into the future. Cowards may topple buildings, but they cannot crush the American spirit."

A SPIRIT OF COOPERATION

The newfound spirit of cooperation was immediately evident as the Legislature, infamous for its snail-like pace, swung into a virtually unprecedented frenzy of action that culminated in a new budget deal in mid-October--almost seven months past the April 1 deadline. This agreement added about $500 million to a $79.6 billion bare-bones spending plan passed in August, and included legislation to significantly expand gambling in New York with an eye toward creating a new revenue stream for the now cash-strapped state.

At the joint session on Sept. 13, the Legislature voted unanimously to pass a resolution condemning the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, commending the acts of heroism by rescue workers and honoring the victims. Members also approved spending up to $500 million in state money for disaster aid for New York City and authorized city officials to borrow $2.5 billion. Four days later, both houses passed a package of anti-terrorism bills sent to them by Pataki even though some called it "overkill" and said new or existing federal laws were likely to cover such crimes.

"I think we had these feelings--being impotent, feeling guilty and wanting to do more--anything at all," says Senator John Bonacic, a Hudson Valley Republican. "Passing this legislation was a little bit fulfilling for us. We felt like we were doing something that would be a deterrent in the future. Quite frankly, though, when you're dealing with evil people who are willing to give up their lives, all the laws in the world aren't going to be a deterrent."

What is certain, legislators say, is that the state is in uncharted territory after the peaceful and prosperous time to which Americans had grown accustomed, and no one is quite certain how bad things will get or how to best correct them. Should the focus be on economic development? Security? Rebuilding? How will traditional issues like education, welfare and health care figure into this time of rapidly dwindling revenues and ever-increasing demands on state government? …