YNN 10 Years: New York’s political history
Albany has a proud political history of being a stepping stone to Washington. Four former governors have been president, five have been vice presidents, and more than a dozen current members of Congress started by serving the state. But lately, it seems many of New York’s political players have a better chance at the Big House than the White House. YNN’s Nick Reisman shows us how state lawmakers are working hard to trade tarnish for transparency.
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ALBANY, N.Y. -- The reputation of state government has never been very good. And over these last ten years, the scores of politicians who have gone to jail, been indicted, or resigned in disgrace is countless.
“Unfortunately, if anything the perception has worsened - that Albany isn't working for the people, that corruption is all too prevalent,” said Susan Lerner, Common Cause NY Executive Director.
The litany of bad actors is a mile long and bipartisan. There's Republican former Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno, who is being retried on corruption charges. Democratic former Senator Carl Kruger is in jail for accepting bribes. Former Comptroller Alan Hevesi is in prison for his role in a pay-to-play pension fund scheme. And of course, there's Eliot Spitzer, who resigned in disgrace as governor in 2008 after he admitted to soliciting high-priced prostitutes. There are scores more who misused member items, found loopholes in campaign finance laws or just plain stole.
“It's generally not the crime, it's generally not the issue, but it's the cover up. It's how you deal with the issue after the fact,” said Steve Greenberg, Siena College pollster.
At one point more lawmakers were actually going to jail than losing re-election. It's something that's kept prosecutors, as well as good-government advocates, busy over these last ten years.
“Being a good-government advocate means that you’re a very indomitable optimist so we believe really strongly that the system can be improved. That elected officials can effect change, but yes, there are days that it can appear frustrating,” said Lerner.
It was 2009 that reached a boiling point. Republicans joined with two Democrats, including Bronx Senator Pedro Espada, to stage a leadership coup. Inaction ground on for a month and Governor David Paterson was helpless to stop it. Voters began to pay attention.
“When we would give voters a list of issues and say what are the most important issues, ethics was always at or near the bottom of the barrel ten years ago,” said Greenberg.
There is a debate as to whether Albany is getting better. The state has passed multiple ethics laws over the years designed to tighten disclosure requirements. But now that new law, along with newly created ethics watchdog the Joint Commission on Public Ethics, is being challenged by the Vito Lopez sexual harassment scandal. Lopez, a once feared Brooklyn lawmaker, is accused of groping and harassing female staffers, who were paid off in secret settlements. Lopez's actions, along with Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver's decision to keep the settlement confidential, are now under investigation.
“You will always find situations where people do things wrong. You will always find situations where people in power make mistakes,” said Governor Cuomo.
But observers say it's Governor Andrew Cuomo who has raised the ethical conduct in Albany and, by extension, made what was once dubbed the most dysfunctional state government in the country, actually work.
“They've made progress. Voters are not as displeased with both houses of the Legislature and I think that's directly related to Governor Cuomo and I think that's directly related to his making ethics an issue,” said Greenberg.
Former Governor Spitzer is acutely aware of the impact governors can have in Albany.
“The governor at the end of the day is the image and face of state government and therefore gets the good and the bad” said Spitzer.