Corruption is old news — but no less urgent

Part of last summer’s movie “Lincoln” resonates loudly in New York today. The president’s secretary of state, William H. Seward, knew our Empire State all too well; he had previously been its governor and one of its U.S. senators. In one scene in the movie, Mr. Seward (played by David Strathairn) advises the president that passing the 13th Amendment to abolish slavery – a noble end – will require some not-so-noble means, such as twisting congressmen’s arms and bribing them with patronage jobs. The president, of course, doesn’t want to personally get involved in that dirty business, and neither does Seward – so they’ll have to hire some people who specialize in this kind of chicanery.

“I’ll fetch a friend from Albany,” Mr. Seward tells the president.

Where else?

“I didn’t include it as a comment on any current situation – I really tried to stay very specific and true to the place and moment about which we made the movie – Washington, January 1865,” screenwriter Tony Kushner told the New York Times in an email. “But of course as a proud New Yorker, I was delighted that when proto-lobbyists capable of stealth and sleight-of-hand were needed, Lincoln and Seward turned at once to Albany!

“As it is today, it was in the mid-19th century a boot camp for an unapologetically, um, pragmatic brand of politics.”

We are saddened but, sadder still, not shocked that several elected leaders in this state have been arrested on corruption charges recently. Actually, what’s more surprising, and pleasing, is that someone is going to the trouble of investigating them, busting them and rounding them up. For that, all New Yorkers owe thanks to federal law-enforcement officials.

This week’s arrestees included state Sen. Malcolm Smith, a former Senate majority and minority leader, as well as Assemblymen and New York City Council members. It’s important that we not consider any of them guilty until they are proven so. But there’s no doubt that political corruption is a widespread problem ingrained in our state for most of the last two centuries.

Assemblyman Eric Stevenson, D-Bronx, who was arrested this week, was reportedly caught on tape saying, “if half of the people up here in Albany was ever caught for what they do … they … would probably be in (jail).”

The accusation that got the most attention this week is that Mr. Smith, a Democrat, bribed a Republican city councilman to set him up to run for city mayor as a Republican, since the Democratic field of candidates is more crowded. Digging up that scheme, though, unearthed numerous other bribes and favor-for-favor deals – everyday, routine examples of the politicians allegedly putting greed and ambition above the morals and honesty voters expect.

“Today’s charges demonstrate, once again, that a show-me-the-money culture seems to pervade every level of New York government,” U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said.

Nothing’s new.

The lack of shock, however, is a big part of the problem. Crooks have worn New Yorkers down over many generations, and while people don’t like corruption, they tolerate a certain amount of it – especially if they can’t see it, and even more so if it’s in their own district representatives, the ones who show up at schools and fundraisers and get state grants for local projects.

Amid that jadedness, this statistic snapped us to attention: In the last six years, 11 New York state senators have been arrested – and only nine have lost re-election bids.

“When it is more likely for a New York state senator to be arrested by the authorities than to be defeated at the polls, (the people of New York) should be angry,” Mr. Bharara said Thursday. “And they also should ask some pointed questions: Given the allegations in today’s case, how many other pending bills were born of bribery? And worse, how many passed bills were born of bribery?”


“Rat on a rat”

It’s like rats in New York City: No one likes them, but no one expects them to be rooted out, or even reduced significantly. If a mayoral candidate promised to make the city rat-free, he or she would be written off as a nut. Yet could it be done? The huge Canadian province of Alberta – almost as big as Texas – made itself rat-free in the 1950s and ’60s, and it remains that way except for a few small outbreaks, which are met with fierce resistance.

Here in the North Country, we don’t see many rats; nor do we see, in our elected leaders, the same level of immorality we see in lawmakers from New York City. But is it lurking behind the scenes in our reps, too? The recent arrests should prompt us to be inquisitive – not to assume guilt but to be vigilant. If we see corruption, let’s all agree to stamp it out at the polls and send those politicians packing.

But being able to see the rats, and the corruption, is one of the main challenges. In Alberta, anyone who spots one of the grain-nibbling, disease-carrying rodents is urged to call a toll-free number to “rat on a rat,” prompting a “rat patrol” to show up and exterminate the critter. Sure, there are false alarms – small gophers are often unintended victims – but the system has generally done its job for 60 years.

What about our political system? A democratic republic is intended to let the people vote in the best leaders and keep out the not-so-good ones. Is it working?

We say yes, in general, but it’s challenged by schemers who take advantage of its weaknesses. Voters need to know what’s happening and have real options, not just candidates who are on the take.

This is why open government and campaign finance reform are so important. It’s why journalists work to shine a light on the workings of government, why people should be suspicious any time government blocks transparency. It’s why whistleblowers who “rat on a rat” need to be protected from retaliation. It’s why the political money race is a problem, why campaign donations need to be strictly restrained, fully documented and attentively monitored. It’s why party bosses and other political gatekeepers need to filter candidates based on the issues, character and popularity, not on fundraising prowess, loyalty or schmoozing.

New York can root out the political rats. There sure seem to be a lot of them, but we have to try to shake this age-old reputation. The alternative is despair or apathy, which are fertile breeding conditions for vermin. As bad as it is, history shows us it can get worse.