Political corruption is an emotionally and racially charged subject in communities of color.
A friend who is an Assembly staffer texted that my last column, “What’s in the Water,” brought a tear to her eye. She felt the pain of a community let down once again.
Another friend emailed that the column was “very powerful.” He then asked, “Once said, where do you go from here?”
(Illustration Credit: Lisanne Gagnon)
A week later Queens state Sen. James Sanders, who ousted the mendacious Shirley Huntley from office last year, invited me to participate in a community forum, “Attack on Black Leaders: Corruption or Conspiracy?” Sanders wanted to host an “intellectual” discussion about the rash of indictments involving black lawmakers. He wanted to address the “conversation that goes on at everybody’s kitchen table.”
Days before his forum, Huntley was revealed to have secretly recorded seven of her black and Hispanic colleagues in a bid to gain leniency from prosecutors. (In a final venomous accusation, she asserted that “suitcases full of cash” regularly change hands in Albany.)
I cast doubt on the existence of a racial bias or prosecutorial conspiracy in the recent rash of investigations and arrests involving black and Hispanic lawmakers.
New York City Comptroller John Liu, who claims he has been unfairly hounded by the FBI, feeds this feeling when he says that “powerful people and rich corporations” don’t want to see him as mayor. That sentiment invariably draws loud applause in the minority community.
Public corruption, however, is equal-opportunity and color-blind. Federal prosecutors go after corruption wherever they find it.
I believe that a federal probe into a real estate developer was the catalyst that led to the wiretap of state Sen. John Sampson. Sometimes when you pull a random thread on a cheap garment, the entire garment unravels.
The only conspiracy that exists is among the dunces who justify their larceny as business as usual or as a means of simply getting “paid.” Corrupt politicians tend to conspire with other like-minded individuals of their tribe, be it ethnic-based (blacks or Jews) or geographic (Queens). The fact that U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, as well as U.S. Attorneys Preet Bharara and Loretta Lynch, are people of color militates against these conspiratorial fantasies.
Concerns about the portrayal of Albany corruption has led community leaders to ask if the media is colluding in the “biased” coverage of minority lawmakers accused of wrongdoing. One Albany watcher observed that the Legislative Correspondents Association has been largely devoid of black or Hispanic journalists since the departures of Errol Cockfield (Newsday) and Erin Billups (NY1). He believes that reporters of color can often check the biases of their white colleagues.
While I agree that the absence of black and Hispanic reporters is troubling, so is the absence of the Spanish-language and black-owned media in condemning minority elected officials. Too often they act as cheerleaders instead of news organizations, propping up minority officeholders who should instead be held to account. Too often, critical articles about those deserving of them only come after the mainstream media have broken a story.
The defense of the minority community should include rearguard actions against those lawmakers who would betray or harm the interests of their own. Community policing should begin at home. As I wrote last month, voters must echo my friend Pete Canale’s constant refrain, “Are you staying honest?”
A zero tolerance policy is required, too. To her credit, Democratic Senate Minority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins demonstrated that approach when she promptly banned Sampson from her conference as soon as the allegations against him came to light. She also exiled him to a seat on the fringes of the Senate chamber.
The bad actors will be prosecuted and/or turned out of office when detected. Am I happy that so many ex-lawmakers of color (many from the Bronx) have proved venal and corrupt? No. But my loyalty lies with the constituents whom they have disappointed, let down and, in some instances, from whom they have stolen. Let us not forget that more often than not, it is none other than the members of the minority community who are the victims of the crimes of their elected officials. To imprison those who have wronged these communities is not an affront to them but a service.
Race will always be a factor in America, but we should not let our ongoing struggle with this important concern serve as an excuse not to demand more of ourselves, our children and those whom we elect to foster and exemplify a more just and honest government.
Former Assemblyman Michael Benjamin represented the Bronx for eight years.