Public Service Is Alive and Well

I am going to use the word “Albany” several times in the next 800 words, and I’m going to ask that you not burst out in laughter or hold your nose or otherwise feel obliged to demonstrate your contempt and hard-won cynicism. These reactions, of course, are set off not by images of the city of Albany, which is a fine place, but by the use of the city’s name as shorthand for “state politics”- which, as is well known, is a grimy, grubby and grisly business.

We know this because wise commentators have told us so. Why, in just the last few months alone, this corner of the newspaper has consulted several thesauri in search of synonyms for the words “corrupt,” “unethical,” “slimy” and, of course, the ever-popular “egregious, slippery dime-store hack who hasn’t paid for a meal or a vacation in two decades.” (Congratulations are in order, by the way, to an editorialist for The New York Times blessed with either a world-class vocabulary or a better set of thesauri than yours truly. In the course of a treatise on political practitioners in Albany, the writer came up with a fine synonym for the word “scum.”)

The latest scandal in the northward concerns lawmakers who consented to complimentary car services provided by a state contractor, Correctional Services Corp. The thoughtful executives at C.S.C. know just how tedious is the three-hour ride from New York City to Albany, so they generously offered certain legislators a proverbial free ride to and from the capital. In this way, the lawmakers were able to use those long commuting hours in a more efficient manner, no doubt for the benefit and betterment of their long-suffering constituents. The free-riders naturally thought it only fair that the good people at C.S.C. receive state funds to run halfway houses for newly released wards of the state. As for C.S.C.’s particularly awful record of managing detention centers under another corporate name, Elmcor, the legislators enjoying free rides chose to emulate the words of Lincoln: Malice towards none; charity for all.

The latest development in the C.S.C. scam has some lawmakers complaining that the scandal-mongering media are focusing their attention on black and Latino lawmakers. And so the ethnic/race card as been put into play, as sure a sign as any that somebody’s beginning to feel very nervous.

Is it really a wonder, then, that so many of us cannot help but enjoy a hearty chuckle whenever some earnest do-gooder insists that the time has come to clean up Albany? Like state capitals around the country, from Little Rock to Trenton to Sacramento, Albany is the province of small-time thieves and ethically challenged incompetents who, were it not for their success in selling snake oil to voters, would be doomed to life in the used-car lots of the heartland.

You’ll notice that in the course of this discussion, not a single name has been dropped. That is because it’s so much easier, and so much more fun, to poke fun at generic everybodies, especially generic state lawmakers. Oh, they are a nasty, brutish sort, aren’t they? They are the sort of people one avoids at all costs, with their down-market outfits and parochial concerns and affinity for cash payments in unmarked bills.

Every now and again, however, the generic collides with the specific, and you’re reminded that even among Albany politicians, there are real, live, decent human beings who actually regard their profession as a calling. I had that precise experience on a recent Sunday morning at the College of Staten Island, when, as a guest of the college, I shared a table with former Assemblywoman Elizabeth Connelly and her husband Bob, a quiet, influential figure in Democratic Party politics on the island.

Ms. Connelly retired a couple of years ago after serving a quarter-century in the Assembly, where she became the state’s leading advocate for the developmentally disabled. Representing a borough that became notorious as the home of the infamous Willowbrook State School, Ms. Connelly was (and remains) a leader in the movement to treat developmentally disabled people with dignity and humanity-it seems hard to remember just how revolutionary that idea was in 1970 or so.

Ms. Connelly and I inevitably wound up talking about another state legislator from Staten Island, State Senator John Marchi, a Republican who has been in Albany since the Eisenhower administration. Mr. Marchi’s influence on Staten Island has been profound and positive, and now, at age 80, the borough is thanking him with great affection. Long a supporter of the arts and culture, Mr. Marchi finds his name being engraved on buildings and in halls of museums and other arts organizations throughout the island.

Neither of these career politicians fits the profile described in so many editorials and commentaries about Albany. Both embody the spirit of true public service. Makes you wonder, doesn’t it?