IMAGINE YOU’RE A well known politician about to be sentenced to federal prison. You’d want to face the judge on a busy news day with the public distracted by bigger events and fewer people witnessing your disgrace. So maybe Sheldon Silver got lucky this week.
The presidential race owned the news cycle Tuesday, which limited the audience for Mr. Silver, the former speaker of the New York State Assembly and a Democrat representing a district in lower Manhattan. He was sentenced to 12 years in prison and nearly $7 million in repayments and fines for his crooked legal deals that benefitted him, his law firms and a real estate developer.
It’s not like he’s the only bad apple the state capitol. Former majority leader of the state Senate, Long Island Republican Dean Skelos, will be sentenced for his sleazy dealings next week, and the list of state lawmakers imprisoned or facing time behind bars for criminal activity in office keeps growing. Does this matter to Columbia County?
This county has four elected state officials, three members of the Assembly and one state Senator. We have so many Assembly members because of gerrymandering, the practice of drawing election districts that favor the party in power. In the era of big data gerrymandering is dirty trick that segregates communities along political lines. Gerrymandered districts discourage change.
Steve McLaughlin (R-107th) and Pete Lopez (R-102nd), the two members of the GOP minority in the Assembly whose districts include parts of this county, frequently express outrage at the way the majority disregards their concerns. Take the situation of Hoosick Falls as an example.
Mr. McLaughlin’s district covers northern and eastern towns in Columbia County in addition to most of Rensselaer County, including the Village of Hoosick Falls. The village has a factory that released an industrial chemical known as PFOA into the village water supply. PFOA is potentially harmful to human health and a citizen activist brought the problem to the attention of state officials.
There are conflicting views about whether state and federal agencies responded quickly and effectively and what more needs to be done. But when Mr. McLaughlin demanded legislative hearings on the response and the cleanup, he was rebuffed by the Assembly’s Democratic leadership.
It’s hard to know whether that decision was cynical or thoughtless. In either case opportunities to learn from Hoosick Falls’ misfortune are slipping away. It’s not difficult to imagine communities here left hanging in similar fashion. Hoosick Falls residents are not only fellow New Yorkers, they’re our neighbors.
Sheldon Silver and Dean Skelos had lost their positions of power before the problems in Hoosick Falls came to light. No one has alleged political corruption caused the pollution of village water. But who can say how deep the rot goes? The constant parade of criminals formerly elected to high office taints all of state government. It feeds suspicions that the game is rigged against the public in favor of insiders.
A recent Siena College Poll found that 97% of the New Yorkers surveyed said the legislature and governor should pass laws to “address corruption” during this session. There isn’t much time. The session ends next month.
Our other two state lawmakers are members of the majorities in their respective houses, Senator Kathy Marchione (R-43rd) and Assemblymember Didi Barrett (D-106th). Both are relatively junior members in a system where long-term incumbency is the rule. But they are conduits to the leadership. They need a message they can relay to the top.
They need you to tell them–all four lawmakers–that it’s gone too far. Tell them that lawmakers should have no job other than the one the public elected them to do. Tell them to deny pensions to lawmakers convicted of violating the law. Tell them to come up with a plan to redraw election districts based on population not political party.
Just because New York State lawmakers, especially leaders, have a tradition of behaving badly doesn’t mean we have to accept that as the only option. Nor should we rely on crusading prosecutors as our preferred tool for uprooting corruption. That way comes with its own risks.
It doesn’t take much time or effort to give your state representatives a message to change the rules in Albany. It won’t bring reform overnight. We’ll have to do it again and again before we see the impact. All we can know for sure is that corruption thrives on our silence.