During his 12 years as governor, Mario Cuomo was fond of describing dire circumstances not as a challenge, but as an opportunity.
His son, Governor Andrew Cuomo, has just been given the opportunity of a lifetime: the latest outbreak of scandal in Albany offers him a chance to force radical change in New York’s political culture.
Since Mr. Cuomo took office, his supporters have spent no small amount of money advertising the dawn of a new era in the state. It’s certainly true that some parts of the state’s dysfunctional political culture have gotten better—budgets are on time, cultural issues like gay marriage have been settled satisfactorily, and the state has embraced fiscal discipline.
That’s all good. But unless Mr. Cuomo can change the narrative of corruption in Albany, taxpayers and businesses have every right to conclude that for all his good intentions, the governor is not the transformative figure he so clearly wishes to be.
Last week proved that the sleazy culture of Albany persists even after some of the state’s best-known political leaders have been sentenced to prison or disciplined other ways. Nearly three-dozen officials have been implicated in some form of scandal over the last seven years, according to the New York Public Interest Research Group, a government watchdog.
This has to change, and Mr. Cuomo has to be the agent of that change.
In case you missed it, the latest scandals have implicated State Senator Malcolm Smith, a Democrat from Queens, and Bronx Assemblymen Eric Stevenson and Nelson Castro. Senator Smith, an important player in Albany politics despite a spotty record, allegedly sought to bribe Republican political leaders to allow his name to appear on the GOP ballot in the party’s mayoral primary. The senator’s alleged middleman, Queens Councilman Daniel Halloran III, was also indicted, as were two Republican Party leaders in the Bronx and Queens.
Assemblyman Stevenson was arrested for allegedly accepting a bribe from the operators of an adult day care center in the Bronx. Mr. Stevenson allegedly shared some of the scheme’s details with his colleague, Mr. Castro, who happened to be wearing a wire. Mr. Castro has been cooperating with government investigators since his indictment on perjury charges in 2009. He resigned his Assembly seat after Mr. Stevenson’s arrest.
Mr. Stevenson was captured on tape saying that “if half of the people up here in Albany was [sic] ever caught for what they do,” they’d wind up in prison. Sadly, who could disagree?
But this scandal isn’t confined to Albany. Councilman Halloran was caught on tape bragging that he could wrangle thousands of dollars from the Council’s infamous discretionary funds to use as bribes. Those funds are distributed through the speaker’s office to individual members to be spent on local projects. It’s a decades-old tradition, and it is a rotten one. The money is a form of incumbent protection, allowing members to spread good cheer and taxpayer dollars among constituents. While Mr. Halloran apparently did not act on his idea, the very concept of member’s items is inherently corrupt.
New York is in desperate need of genuine political reform, from top to bottom. Mr. Cuomo, as the state’s top elected official, needs to take ownership of this issue. If not, somebody else will—perhaps as early as next year, when Mr. Cuomo will be running for re-election.