The Uphill Battle To Reform Albany

The Uphill Battle To Reform Albany

The Uphill Battle To Reform Albany
May 21, 2014

To be a good-government advocate in Albany is to understand the ordeal of Sisyphus. Even when reform legislation overcomes the titanic odds to pass, it is undermined by cavernous loopholes, insidious omissions and laughable enforcement. And in the end, after all the effort to push the boulder up the hill to the Second Floor of the Capitol, it goes rolling back down to the foot of State Street.

Then again, perhaps Sisyphus had it better. His curse was to never make any progress. In New York, goo-goos have to grapple with not just winding back up at square one but the ground giving way beneath their feet.

When I interviewed historian Terry Golway recently about his new book on Tammany Hall, Machine Made, he observed that Albany is even worse today than it was in the notorious days of Tammany. The difference is that the generations of lawmakers since have had the cunning to make all of their ignominious practices legal and, in so doing, to institutionalize corruption.

As City & State brought to light in our most recent issue’s cover story about the Moreland Commission, the rules governing how campaign funds can be spent in New York State are one of those vast gray areas deliberately designed to invite elastic interpretation, if not outright abuse.

Legislators dropping thousands of dollars contributed to their re-election efforts on cigars, booze and at casinos sounds like just the type of behavior we would expect from Boss Tweed or Jimmy Walker. And yet in 2014 this variety of sleaze is perfectly legal: All you have to do is be able to concoct any explanation why the expenditure was tangentially related to your campaign—no matter how far-fetched that rationale might be.

Bought a bunch of fancy clothes? A legislator has to look respectable, right? Made thousands in purchases at baby boutiques and toy stores? Gifts for constituents and staffers, obviously. Used campaign cash for car repairs and maintenance? Well, you can’t have an august lawmaker driving around in a wreck, now, can you? Staying at four-star hotels, eating at the finest restaurants, and sitting in luxury boxes at sporting events and concerts—as so many of our members of Congress do with money from their Leadership PACs—that’s just what you have to do to rub shoulders with the billionaires and glitterati who bankroll campaigns in the 21st century. It’s not like our legislators derive any pleasure from these perks—they have to endure these conditions to best serve the public.

After City & State’s piece about personal use came out, there were a flurry of follow-up reports from press outlets across the state, and another round of indignation from New Yorkers, who have grown far too accustomed to their leaders’ actions not passing the smell test—even if they are justifiable according to the letter of the law. This heightened awareness about an issue that usually flies under the radar is just the type of ammunition good-government groups hope will move the needle in their endless battle for reform. And yet will anything actually wind up changing because of this blip of outrage?

With the dizzying pace of the news cycle in this age, even stories that are treated as blockbusters one day are often relegated to the dustbin the next—with the public’s attention span following suit. Our politicians are preying upon this impatience to preserve the status quo. They know that the best way to beat negative revelations about their conduct is simply to ignore them until the next shiny object comes along to send the media scurrying off in another direction.

Even when goo-goos can sustain the attention of the press and the public—as was the case with Mayor Ed Koch’s New York Uprising to bring independent redistricting to the state—there is still a fundamental, perhaps insurmountable obstacle impeding its progress. Certainly it was the reason why ultimately even Koch’s robust effort ended in failure: At its heart, the task of good-government groups is to convince elected officials to act against their self-interest for the benefit of the people.

And we all know how often that happens.

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Morgan Pehme