Two years ago in this space, I interviewed Bruce Roter, the man behind the idea of creating an "Albany Museum of Political Corruption," mostly because I thought it was such a great (and amusing) idea. A museum with a "perpetual revolving door" in the Lobbyists Lobby? A self-guided "Follow The Money" tour? I know I'd go out of my way to visit such a museum! The museum's purpose would be to combine humor and history to teach children and adults some of the sordid tales of corruption from New York's past (of which there are many -- how many of us still recognize the name Boss Tweed, for instance?). This would be the first museum of its kind in the United States, and could eventually branch out to other state capitals that sorely need one (Baton Rouge, I am looking in your direction...), or even go national. Who wouldn't want to visit an American museum of political corruption on D.C.'s National Mall, after all?
In the intervening two years, College of Saint Rose professor Bruce Roter has made significant progress towards seeing his dream become a reality. He has secured a charter for his museum from the state, and is now in the process of filing paperwork registering as a non-profit (to assure that donations to the Museum of Political Corruption will be tax-deductible). And just yesterday, the M.P.C. announced its first-ever essay contest for high-school students, to answer the question: "What is political corruption and why should we care?"
"With this contest, the Museum of Political Corruption is taking this step onto the national stage to begin an important discussion on what constitutes political corruption and why we should care," said Roter, announcing the contest. "These are important questions that the M.P.C. will address. But before we do, consistent with our educational mission, we want to reach out to the next generation of voters and get them to think seriously about these issues, especially in advance of the 2016 elections."
The M.P.C. organization now boasts an impressive amount of talent, both on its Board of Trustees and its Board of Advisors, notably including 2014 New York gubernatorial candidate Zephyr Teachout. Saint Peter's University political science professor Philip Mark Plotch had perhaps the most unique perspective on the need for the museum: "I teach my students that political scandals are a sign that the founding fathers successfully created a nation with strong checks and balances along with a flourishing free press. As long as human nature includes greed, envy, and a lust for power, there will be political scandals. When we stop hearing about them -- that's when we have to start worrying." Plotch also had some advice for students thinking about entering the contest: "Remember that adults are just like kids. They do stupid things, sometimes, when they don't expect to get caught."
Fellow board member Meave M. Tooher, who served eight years as Investigative Counsel for the New York State Ethics Commission and the Joint Commission on Public Integrity, had the following advice for students entering the contest: "I would encourage them to be brave and be creative. I think that youth has the ability to look at things from a fresh perspective that their lack of experience in the world actually enhances. Having not been too badly jaded by the negative impact of corruption, perhaps they can provide some fresh insights into the importance of corruption and its influence upon the next round of voters."
Zephyr Teachout, however, had the best personal story to relate. "I entered an essay contest when I was 15 years old, on the bicentennial of the Constitutional Convention," Teachout recounted. "It was a national contest, with every state entering, and I decided to enter. I was shocked when I heard I had won for New Hampshire!" As a result, Teachout got to travel to Washington and meet with Ronald Reagan and Warren Burger, and she also participated in a re-enactment of the Constitutional Convention in Williamsburg, Virginia. Teachout credits this as "the beginning of my own lifelong study of political corruption." Her advice to students? "I think it's fascinating to ask the question, and will really be interested to see what the kids write. I think this contest will spark curiosity and interest about the subject of political corruption among all who enter. You never expect to win these things, but sometimes you do."
The M.P.C. national essay contest is open to all U.S. high school students, and the rules and entry forms can be found on the Museum of Political Corruption website. Students have until November 2nd to send in their entry, a one-page essay which answers the question: "What is political corruption and why should we care?" And, lest I be accused of some sort of corruption of my own, I must fully disclose that while I have never received anything of value from the M.P.C. or Roter (although he did offer me a Commemorative Silver Edition Kickback™ at one point), this column is actually part of the first prize. The first-prize winner will not only receive $250 and a museum coffee mug, but their essay will be published on my own site, ChrisWeigant.com. The top three winning entries will be posted on the M.P.C. website as well. If the first contest goes well, Roter is considering making this an annual event, since it is so closely tied to the mission of the museum. As he put it: "By hosting this event, even before our facility is constructed, we're demonstrating that we're not waiting for the walls to come up on our museum. A museum is not defined by its walls, it's defined by it's mission. And our mission is to present information on corruption so that by knowing about the past we can forge a better government in the future."
At first glance, the Albany Museum of Political Corruption seems like an inside joke. There will be no entry fee, for instance -- instead you must offer up a bribe. A "Tammany Lecture Hall" is planned. However, the humor is just a hook to draw the public in, as evidenced by proposed interactive exhibits such as "Build your own political machine!" and "Creative Gerrymandering: redrawing New York's district lines to benefit YOU!" These, while humorous, would be valuable tools to educate the public about the scope of political corruption today (of which there is, sadly, still no shortage in the New York government). Getting the public interested in history is always a heavy lift, so making it fun will no doubt allow the information to reach a much wider audience. As Professor Plotch notes: "I have found that political scandals can be powerful teaching tools. Not only do they keep students on their edge of their seats, but they also reveal important lessons about power, institutions, justice, and ethics."
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