The Corrupt Spectacle of New York's State Government

I confess that I am old enough to remember seeing John F. Kennedy on a little black and white TV screen, challenging me to ask what I could do for my country. I suppose that it was in that moment that I became interested in public service and politics, and all these years later my commitment is battered but still intact. The assassinations of the 1960's and the attempt on President Reagan in 1981 were terrifying, but in some way almost ennobling. Our leaders seemed like heroes, and these larger-than-life figures never had to tell us, Richard Nixon style, "I am not a crook." Some, like Teddy Kennedy, let us down, but then lived long enough to redeem themselves in our eyes.

But today, the slow and steady debasement of public service in New York is visible across the spectrum, characterized by disgraced ex-police commissioner Bernie Kerick's disgusting corruption, State Senator Hiram Monserrate's self-righteous domestic abuse, former Governor Elliot Spitzer's famous role as client number 9, and now, Governor David Paterson's ridiculous claim that he "never abused his office." No, it's just that he may have talked an alleged abuse victim into staying silent. Ask not, indeed.

Corruption is of course not limited to New York, and it is not new. The Tweed Court House that is now the home of the City's Department of Education has been termed a monument to corruption. Uncounted (literally) millions of dollars passed through the Democratic Party's corrupt and greedy hands during the twenty years (1861-1881) it took to construct that stately structure. Some have even argued that the corrupt party bosses of Tammany Hall helped the city absorb the waves of immigration in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Political boss rule was seen as a necessary part of the city's economic and political development.

Yet while sin and corruption are not new, and my boyhood hero John Kennedy probably had more than wealth in common with Elliot Spitzer, I am starting to think that the American crisis of public ethics has spun out of control. There are two central aspects to this crisis:
  • The first is the corrosive impact of money in politics, exacerbated by the Supreme Court's recent decision that campaign contributions are a form of free speech subject to virtually no limitations.
  • The second is the abuse of power, which takes many forms, from Congressman Rangel's use of four rent-stabilized apartments to the illicit use of the Governor's state trooper detail to intimidate a victim of domestic abuse to Kerik's quarter million dollar apartment renovation by (of course) a mob-connected contractor.

Since America is the land of free market capitalism, why does this matter? Shouldn't we have a free market in terms of political influence? The problem is that corruption, oddly enough, corrupts. If the rule of law is a meaningless game, and everything is for sale, then there is no rule of law and, in the end, no civilization. Wealth in a modern economy requires rules that create certainty so that people are willing to invest their capital and put it to work instead of hiding it under the mattress. Political corruption is a primary cause of economic malaise. Without the incredible civic citizenship of New York's unions, elected officials and business leaders in the mid-1970's, New York City would have ended up bankrupt and in permanent decline. The temporary cessation of corruption and the presence of enlightened self-interest led to the revival that New York City enjoys today.

In contrast, the horrifying dysfunction of the political elite in Albany has directly contributed to the economic decline of upstate New York. In the 1970's we had the courageous leadership of then-Governor Hugh Carey. Today, we have former Senate leader Joe Bruno facing jail time, Assembly Leader Shelly Silver still collecting huge fees from his law practice, and a governor who may be guilty of obstructing justice. Investments in infrastructure and funding for business incentives are pushed aside in an effort to placate health care and education interests and unions. Perhaps at one time we were rich enough to afford this level of payoff, but its clear that those days are long over.

We need to search for a systemic cure for this disease of corruption. We need a real system of checks and balances that makes it clear to public officials that if they abuse the public's trust, someone is watching and they will get caught. But we also need to change the overall environment in our state government. I would start by tightly regulating outside income for legislators while increasing their salaries. Legislators make an average of $90,000 a year in New York, and we still operate under the myth that these are part time jobs. New York's budget is over $130 billion dollars a year. Running a state of this size should be a full time job and not a hobby. While average New Yorkers may think that $90,000 is a lot of money, it is not. These low salaries are an invitation for corruption - and many of our legislators seem to be accepting that invitation.

Still, the corrupt and dysfunctional environment in Albany does not excuse the abuse of power that the Governor, the state police and his top aide have been accused of. If the investigation proves that these charges are true, not only should Governor Patterson resign, but he should be prosecuted as well. Personally, I hope these charges are untrue, although I fear that that the worst is yet to come.