Another Albany Scandal

This year’s legislative session in Albany will occupy a special place in the annals of New York political history. It will be remembered as the session during which an unusually high number of legislators was implicated in all sorts of nefarious deeds, partly as a result of at least two legislators spying on their colleagues in hopes of winning mercy from federal prosecutors.

If Gov. Andrew Cuomo wins re-election next year and embarks on a presidential campaign, you will hear a lot more about the state legislative session of 2013. And you’ll hear about it from Mr. Cuomo’s opponents. It will be interesting to see if they can keep from laughing out loud when they talk about what happened under Mr. Cuomo’s watch.

Legislators returned home last week after six months of intense labor, during which they managed not to produce anything resembling ethics reform, even after a series of embarrassing perp walks by their colleagues.

Politicians are generally slow to implement new rules governing their behavior. They usually have to be shamed into acting, usually by the executive branch, acting as the law-and-order spokesperson for an outraged electorate.

Gov. Cuomo, however, lost his voice this spring. He failed to capitalize on public disgust with the endless stories of dirty dealing in Albany, choosing instead to wheel and deal in private. The result: nothing.

There can be little doubt that the governor shares the public’s disgust over the legislative branch’s behavior. He’s shown flashes of authentic outrage, and if he is indeed thinking about 2016—does anybody believe that he isn’t?—he knows that he’ll have to answer for the behavior of his colleagues in the State Senate and Assembly.

For that reason alone, Mr. Cuomo might have been expected to mount a high horse on behalf of real, thorough and transparent political reform in Albany this spring. But he didn’t. Yes, he proposed a series of anticorruption measures, but the public was barely aware of them. The Legislature had no reason to act.

All is not lost. To his credit, Mr. Cuomo announced the other day that he will put together a commission to investigate legislative corruption and campaign fund-raising (the two, of course, are intimately linked). Legislators might well believe that they’ve dodged the bullets of public outrage and gubernatorial scorn. But Mr. Cuomo’s commission has the potential to rally public opinion and force reform on Albany.

Of course, it all comes down to leadership. If Mr. Cuomo wishes to campaign for re-election
next year as a reformer, well, the clock is ticking.