“What’s in the water?” John Gambling asked me recently when I appeared on his radio show to discuss the latest corruption scandal to hit the Bronx.
Gambling’s query is this century’s equivalent of Howard Cosell telling America, “Ladies and gentlemen, the Bronx is burning.”
On that October night in 1977, those soon-to-be famous words caused my college dorm-mates to inquire if my hometown was afire. Hurt, embarrassment and anger flooded through me all at once.
Flash-forward 35 years.
“Oh, no! You’re kidding, right?” I groaned when a friend called to ask if I’d heard that my successor in the New York State Assembly, Eric Stevenson, had been arrested on corruption and bribery charges. Those same feelings from 1977 came flooding back.
It was personal, again. My four terms in the Assembly will now forever be bookended by corruption cases. I was first elected in a special election in 2003, following the arrest and conviction for bribery of my predecessor, Gloria Davis. During my eight years in office, until my retirement from the Legislature in 2010, I did my utmost to remove the stain Davis had left upon the seat by regaining the people’s trust. Sadly, it is clear now that despite my best efforts, I was ultimately unable to prevent the dark days of the past from returning.
Of course, through the politics of my district I had had encounters with Stevenson, Assemblyman Nelson Castro and their confederate Sigfredo Gonzalez.
Stevenson had run for public office twice before being elected: once unsuccessfully against me and once as the district leader candidate on my slate (I was advised to try to bring him into the fold).
“Siggy” Gonzalez had teamed up with Stevenson to oppose me in 2008. He had long been rumored to be involved in shady activities, but there had been nothing concrete to pursue.
As for Castro, he had been opposed by the Rainbow Rebels in 2008 when we coalesced to depose Assemblyman José Rivera as Bronx Democratic county leader. To me, it is only fitting that Castro ended up hauled before a Bronx judge in handcuffs like the (still alleged) criminal I always thought he was before, and since, he entered public office.
These guys were birds of a feather, and yet I take little pleasure in their downfall. Instead, the arrest of this motley crew of grifters has left me crestfallen—not for the accused but for my former constituents.
It seems that every decade brings a new crop of public officials to disappoint Bronx voters.
To get a greater sense of others’ feelings, I reached out to former Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer, knowing that Stevenson’s father, Ed, was a close friend of his and that Eric had once worked in his office.
Ferrer admitted to feeling “dumbfounded” by the charges leveled against Stevenson. “We had a gorgeous mosaic of corruption in the ’80s,” Ferrer joked grimly, referring to the array of Jewish, Italian, black and Puerto Rican politicians who used to make up the culture of corruption in the Bronx.
Ferrer had ascended to the borough presidency in the aftermath of a massive corruption scandal that reverberated across the Bronx and Queens. In the wake of the ’87 scandal, Ferrer added Ne cede malis—“Yield not to evil,” in Latin—to the borough’s flag. He also ordered the graffiti that had been defacing the walls of the Mario Merola Bronx County Court House to be removed, and took down the false walls in the building’s rotunda that had covered the magnificent murals commemorating the ideals of America.
Ferrer keenly understood the value of symbolism. He wanted Borough Hall to become a clean, shining citadel of honesty and good government.
I’m not sure what kind of symbolism would be appropriate today.
However, the words of my friend Pat Canale, a local businessman, come to mind. Pat would always ask in his Italian-accented English, “Michael, you staying honest?”
I always got the piercing point of his question.
Every constituent and voter should, like Pat, pointedly ask his or her representatives if they are remaining upright in performing their duties as public servants. That question will go a long way toward establishing a culture of integrity and zero tolerance for corruption.
Honesty—that’s what should be in the water. If not, the only thing left to drink will be shame.
[Note: A “Ne Cede Malis” iron-on patch is available online at fromTheBronx.com.]
Former Assemblyman Michael Benjamin represented the Bronx for eight years.