How to avoid becoming an Albany swamp creature

Actor Dick Durock as the Swamp Thing.
Actor Dick Durock as the Swamp Thing.
Swampfilms/Kobal/Shutterstock
The late-actor Dick Durock as the Swamp Thing from the 1982 movie of the same name.

How to avoid becoming an Albany swamp creature

The state Legislature has distorted many politicians’ careers, but freshman state senators have choices.
November 11, 2018

New York’s voters, in their wisdom, have put New York’s state Senate in the hands of beginners.

If Tuesday’s results hold, there will be a remarkable 15 freshmen in the Senate’s forthcoming 39-member Democratic majority. Many of them have little or no experience of the state Capitol and its byzantine, sleazy ways. They will be answering to leaders who are relative novices in their own right, having been shut out of real power – and the temptations that go with it – for most of their careers.

The newcomers will arrive with high hopes and progressive ideals. But, if they’re not careful, judging from past experience, some could well leave in handcuffs.

Herewith, some nonpartisan advice for Albany's Class of 2018 on how it can avoid getting sucked into the swamp – and maybe leave state government in better shape than they found it:

Dance like nobody's watching; legislate as if you're on a wire

You probably see yourself as an honest, law-abiding person – but that's before a party leader has leaned on you to do a favor for a big-bucks donor, or a colleague has explained a clever way to pad your expense account.

Few, if any, politicians enter the state Legislature intending to break the law, but too many of them ultimately do. That's how a culture of corruption works.

A handy trick for keeping yourself honest is to assume that every phone call is being recorded and every person you talk to – including fellow lawmakers – is an FBI informant. It just might be true.

Reform starts at home

It's not good enough to support clean government while continuing to practice slimy business as usual. If you think it's wrong to exploit the so-called LLC loophole – which allows wealthy interests to disguise their identities while making virtually unlimited campaign donations – then leave the money on the table.

Yes, it's unilateral disarmament. But you and your colleagues now have the power to level the playing the field by changing the law. The fact that your political enemies are continuing to rake in LLC cash will motivate you to get the job done sooner.

Pick a leader, not a boss

Electing a party leader is usually the very first vote that new legislators cast – and the beginning of the end of their independence as elected officials.

As things stand now, Albany's legislative leaders hoard too much power to themselves – the power to hire and fire committee chairs, to grant or withhold office budgets, to determine which bills come to a vote and, above all, to write a $168 billion budget in secret negotiations with the governor.

Senate Democratic Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins stands to make history as the first woman to hold one of these top jobs, but that's no reason to keep a dysfunctional status quo. Before giving her your support, demand that she cede some of the bossist trappings – by switching to elected committee chairs, giving all members an equal office budget and hashing out new laws and spending decisions in the light of day.

Take legislating seriously

Central to boss rule is the willingness of too many Albany lawmakers to cede the details of legislating to party leaders, staff and lobbyists, then vote as they're told when the time comes.

To be truly functional and effective lawmakers, you need to grab the nitty-gritty back for yourself. Learn the issues you care about. Study the existing laws and their history. Read the bill language. Measure its stated goals against its real effects. Know that unintended consequences are inevitable. Hold public hearings, so stakeholders and experts can give you the benefit of their expertise and perspective. Listen to lobbyists, but be skeptical of self-serving claims.

Keep a sharp eye for rent seekers

In Albany, special interests come in all shapes, sizes and ideological persuasions.

Groups to beware of include, of course, landlords, tobacco manufacturers, casino operators and other Uncle Pennybags types – especially if they come bearing gifts.

But some of the most powerful lobbies in Albany represent generally well-liked and sympathetic groups, such as health-care workers and teachers. It’s important to keep in mind that they and their labor unions also have self-serving agendas that can conflict with the best interests of the broad public.

For many of you, members of these and other unions have been friends, colleagues, mentors and trusted campaign allies. But as soon as you take the oath of office, you become management – and you need to act the part.

Whether it’s regulating Wall Street or establishing retirement benefits for public employees, your duty is to watch out for ordinary New Yorkers who can’t afford a full-time lobbying team at the Capitol. If you don’t speak up for them, who will?

Stay in the friend zone

It’s worth remembering that a sizable fraction of Albany scandals have involved not money, but sex. The safest course is to stick with romantic partners who have nothing to do with state government.

And if you need to be told that interns are off-limits, you don’t belong in public office.

Bill Hammond
, a former longtime journalist covering the state Capitol, is health policy director of the Empire Center.
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