Mornin’ Glories Missed Their Chance

Reformers are mornin’ glories, said the sage of Tammany Hall, George Washington Plunkitt. They lack the grit and determination of political professionals, and so are forever doomed in their efforts to turn politics and government into dispassionate, rational enterprises undertaken by men and women with only the purest intent and, of course, all the right positions.

As a State Senator and a Tammany man from the West Side in the 1890’s, Plunkitt watched with some amusement as various do-gooders tried to drive his friends out of government. They usually failed, because they simply didn’t have the knowledge and stamina for the fight. “There have been reform committees of fifty, of sixty, of seventy, of one hundred and all sorts of numbers that started out to do up the regular political organizations,” he said. “They were mornin’ glories-looked lovely in the mornin’ and withered up in a short time, while the regular machines went on flourishin’ forever, like fine old oaks.”

A hundred years after Plunkitt offered his insights into New York politics, a mornin’ glory by the name of Ronald Lauder surveyed the city’s body politic with some dismay and then announced that he held the solution to better government. He spent millions in the 1990’s to persuade New Yorkers that term limits were the answer to what ailed city politics. The people were quite taken with this very simple solution and, indeed, became so ecstatic that they forgot they had the power to impose term limits all along: All they needed to do was vote in large numbers against incumbents and-hurrah!-he barnacle-brained time-servers would be forced out of office without resort to legislative mandates.

Ah, but the Lauder solution was neat and clean and simple: Two terms and you’re done. That is the law in New York now. Reformers considered this a triumph.

Not surprisingly, however, the term-limits law has not made city government conspicuously better, and may indeed have made matters worse, since the only people who remember anything are the unelected and unaccountable staff members. Mornin’-glory Lauder thought he knew what evil lurked in the heart of the body politic. If only ….

Had he “been brought up in the difficult business of politics,” in Plunkitt’s words, Mr. Lauder would have understood that the solution to better government in the city and in Albany is a good deal more subtle than term limits, and probably more effective. If the mornin’ glories demanded that members of the City Council and State Assembly work at their jobs full-time, with no opportunity to use their law firms and other businesses to cash in on their connections, why, the dreaded occasion of sin would rarely present itself.

The recent case of State Senator Guy Velella of the Bronx offers a case in point. To the mornin’ glories, Mr. Velella would seem to be a classic example of the need for term limits in Albany. He has been hanging around the city since 1971, first in the Assembly, then in the State Senate. A Republican-Conservative, he talked the small-government game, but he was legendary for his prowess at the pork barrel. He was a well-known and powerful figure in state politics because he wheeled and dealed and played the inside game. Oh, and let’s not forget nepotism-his 90-year-old father has a patronage job with the Board of Elections.

So, when Mr. Velella’s career came to an abrupt end the other day with his resignation and his subsequent guilty plea in a corruption case, the mornin’ glories muttered yet again about the corrosive effects of long-term membership in any political house of ill repute.

In fact, the real scandal involving the ex-Senator has nothing to do with longevity and everything to do with availability. State Senators and Assembly members, like members of the City Council, are considered part-time workers and so are available to work outside the house. Some do not, which if nothing else suggests that the spirit of public service has not been snuffed out entirely. But many lawmakers, like Mr. Velella, practice law on the side. News accounts of his plea bargain, in which he pleaded guilty to taking kickbacks from contractors seeking business from the state, noted that among his law firm’s clients were major insurance companies. Did these giants of the industry just happen to find Mr. Velella’s firm in the telephone book? Certainly not-Mr. Velella, when he was not practicing law, happened to be the chairman of the State Senate’s Insurance Committee.

As is so often the case with political corruption, what’s shocking here is what’s legal. Lawyer-lawmakers like Mr. Velella regularly use their political influence and reputation on behalf of their clients.

Depriving City Council members and state lawmakers of outside earnings would go a long way towards ending the sleazy deals that muck up city and state politics. Too bad the mornin’ glories didn’t understand that.