A survey of state and local government in New York does not always leave observers inspired, uplifted and generally giddy about the joys and virtues of democracy.
Begin, if you dare, with our part-time legislators in the frozen wastelands of Albany. Oh, some of them are fine and even admirable, as one might expect in any collection of 211 people not, at the moment, in state custody. For the most part, however, we are talking about the dreariest kinds of lifelong politicos, assured of little or no opposition thanks to their control over New York’s legislative districts. They rouse themselves but once every 10 years, when they scour maps of their district, identify the streets that are home to potential opponents, and carefully place those streets in some other district. Having done a good decade’s work, they settle into undisturbed slumber, many of them dreaming of the riches that flow into their law practices just for being a part-time legislator.
The City Council, home to yet another group of part-time lawmakers, has been held in such high esteem in recent years that voters, in their wisdom, twice decided to send them packing through the blessed device of term limits. Until the great purge of 2001, when 35 of the Council’s 51 members were ineligible for re-election, the Council consisted of an assortment of time-servers, reprobates-in-training and hollow-eyed tools of various interest groups. The influx of new members at least has quickened the Council’s collective pulse; then again, the election of Calvin Coolidge, even in his current state, might have had the same effect.
Even at the high end, New York offers little that would satisfy those Founders who boasted of the purity and righteousness of republican government. Winning election as Governor in New York requires the raising and expenditure of millions of dollars extorted from-er, contributed by-those with a financial interest in the contest’s outcome. George Pataki successfully won re-election last year by raising those many millions and then smiling and saying nothing about the fiscal catastrophe that he knew was coming. His optimism went unchallenged because he had a lot of money, and that made him a sure winner.
Even in this seemingly hopeless muddle of mediocrity, corruption and just plain bad government, however, there is something to remind New Yorkers of a time when they and their elected officials were developing programs and services that were models for the nation. Fifteen years ago, the city established a new, voluntary system for funding campaigns for municipal office. And to oversee this new system, the city founded a small layer of bureaucracy called the Campaign Finance Board, which was charged with monitoring compliance with the system’s regulations and distributing cash money to those candidates who chose to abide by those rules.
A decade and a half later, New York’s voluntary system of public campaign finance remains a national model. Candidates who abide by its spending limits and other regulations are rewarded with public money that lessens their reliance on special-interest money, which means that it advances the cause of democracy.
For most of the last 15 years, the board’s chairman has been the Reverend Joseph O’Hare, a Jesuit priest who also has been running Fordham University all these years. But now, at age 71, Father O’Hare is stepping down from the C.F.B. and from the university. Fordham already has settled on a promising successor in the Reverend Joseph McShane; one can only hope City Hall is as diligent in finding a new C.F.B. chairman.
During his tenure, Father O’Hare managed to infuriate two Mayors, David Dinkins and Rudy Giuliani; one high-powered consultant, Hank Morris; and plenty of lesser mortals. He did this by insisting that candidates adhere to both the letter and spirit of the campaign-finance law. No wonder they found this priest so meddlesome; he was acting on behalf of the public at large, and as recent New York political history indicates, this is to be avoided at all costs.
When the C.F.B. fined Mr. Dinkins’ campaign for violations, Mr. Dinkins acted swiftly, briefly removing Father O’Hare as chairman. Mr. Giuliani re-installed him and lived to regret it when the board fined his campaign after the 1997 elections. It was Mr. Giuliani’s turn to seek Father O’Hare’s removal, thus acting out every Manhattan College graduate’s fantasy-firing the president of Fordham University. It came to nothing.
Mr. Morris tangled with Father O’Hare in a televised hearing during the 2001 election, when the consultant was ever so cleverly trying to find loopholes in the system’s regulations. Mr. Morris ranted about suing the priest; his candidate, Alan Hevesi, wound up finishing fourth in a four-way primary.
A generation of New York politicians learned the perils of tangling with this white-haired Jesuit. Is it too much to hope that a new generation meets its match in Father O’Hare’s successor?