I am sure there are honest people serving in the New York Legislature, just as I’m sure there are vegetarians who work in steakhouses. The question is why they would want to be there.
New York lawmakers were arrested in two separate cases last week on charges of bribery and corruption. Even before these latest cases are proven (or not) in court, they are more grist for the Albany mill, reinforcing our sad awareness of how things get done in Empire State government.
In the first case, Malcolm A. Smith, a state senator from Queens, and five other officials were arrested last Tuesday as the result of a sting operation involving the New York City mayoral race. Federal authorities allege that Smith, a Democrat, traded road improvements in Rockland County for a place on the Republican primary ballot.
Daniel J. Halloran, a city councilman charged along with Smith, was reportedly recorded saying, “Money is what greases the wheels - good, bad or indifferent.” Halloran is accused of accepting $7,500 in cash at the same meeting.
You might be wondering why a Democratic lawmaker even wanted a spot on the Republican mayoral ballot line. We will return to the question shortly; for now let’s just observe that ballot access, or lack thereof, is at the root of many of New York’s problems.
The second, unrelated corruption case that surfaced last week focused on an assemblyman accused of taking bribes in exchange for helping four businessmen who operate adult day centers in the Bronx. Eric A. Stevenson was arrested Thursday, charged with bribery and introducing legislation designed to prevent the developers’ competition from building new centers for three years. Federal prosecutors built their case, in part, using evidence gathered by recordings from two cooperating witnesses.
The New York Times reported that one of them, Assemblyman Nelson L. Castro, agreed to work with investigators in order to secure leniency in his own state perjury charges. Castro’s alleged perjury occurred before he entered the Legislature. He resigned his seat shortly after Stevenson’s arrest was announced, having been allowed to hold it for more than a year while he reportedly wore a wire for investigators.
Preet Bharara, the United States attorney in Manhattan, said at a news conference about in the Stevenson case, “It becomes more and more difficult to avoid the sad conclusion that political corruption in New York is indeed rampant and that a show-me-the-money culture in Albany is alive and well.”
There are plenty of ways for honest people to make a good living in New York. Few of them involve getting into politics.
Political corruption in New York is not just endemic. It’s systemic. In New York, party bosses dictate how legislators vote on important matters in Albany and who can get on the ballot at the local level to run in the first place. In nearly the entire state, political districts are so gerrymandered that results on Election Day are almost meaningless. It is the party primaries, controlled by insiders and dominated by machine loyalists, that really count.
Smith, the Democratic state senator from Queens, happens to be African-American. He would have had almost no shot at winning his own party’s mayoral nomination in a crowded field that includes the City Council president and several other prominent local officials. But if he could get on the ballot as a Republican, he might have a chance to win the mayoral race if he could get a united black turnout against, ideally, a fractured non-black field, as might happen if Democrats and third parties nominated different candidates.
New York’s system is so entrenched that state attorneys general, who usually aspire to become governor one day, see no advantage in challenging the status quo. Instead, the current Attorney General, Eric Schneiderman, scours the country for bankers to put in jail, while prosecuting the corrupt legislators who work a stone’s throw from his office falls to federal prosecutors in Manhattan. His predecessors Andrew Cuomo and Eliot Spitzer were no different.
Unlike voters in many other states, New Yorkers cannot pass laws or amend their state constitution directly through ballot initiatives. Everything must pass through the Albany chokepoint. Favors dispensed there trickle through massively convoluted county and municipal bureaucracies, where regulatory stumbling blocks abound and any progress relies on some public official’s discretion. It is a recipe for graft.
Yet, curiously, New Yorkers generally seem to tolerate, and in some cases even embrace, this state of affairs. Many of them seem to see government as a reasonably effective mechanism for redistributing money from a small number of people who have it to a large number of people who want it. If some of that money leaks into politicians’ pockets along the way, New York voters evidently don’t care.
Is there altruism to be found in the halls of the ornate New York State Capitol in Albany? I have to assume there is. But it seems as misplaced and naive as that of the animal rights activist who thinks he can accomplish his goals in the slaughterhouse or on the grill.