2007-01-05 / Columnists

The Rockaway Irregular

It's The Electorate, Stupid!
Commentary by Stuart W. Mirsky

In a year in which Democrats swept to power nearly everywhere, State Comptroller Alan Hevesi, an incumbent Democrat with serious ethical baggage, managed to get himself re-elected, despite abundant evidence of wrongdoing.

His opponent, a little known upstate Republican from Saratoga named J. Christopher Callaghan made few inroads despite Hevesi's ongoing problems. The voters just didn't seem to care.

But that was only the tip of a very disturbing iceberg. On December 14, the New York Sun ran a piece about Bronx state senator Efrain Gonzalez (D), indicted for having "regularly directed state funds to a Bronx charity" and then having "used the charity as a personal bank." The funds at issue were so-called member items, amounts budgeted by the two houses of the State legislature to members in good standing for discretionary use in their districts. Typically, such monies are handed out by the legislators to groups and causes they deem "worthy." These funds also serve to ingratiate the legislator with locals on Election Day. And, occasionally they become a source of questionable ethics charges or misdeeds, as in the case of Bronx Senator Gonzalez.

The Sun noted that Gonzalez "is the seventh member of the city's delegation to Albany to be indicted on corruption-related charges in the last three years," adding that "nine politicians from the city's 80-member delegation have been charged with crimes in that time." Among these, Democratic State Assemblyman from Queens Brian McLaughlin may be the most egregious example. McLaughlin recently found himself indicted on 44 counts of racketeering, embezzlement and fraud, including allegations of up to $2.2 million in stolen funds, plus charges of bid-rigging. Significantly, McLaughlin is suspected of having stolen from his childhood Little League organization as well, to which he had been allocating member item funds.

Writing in The Sun on December 21 concerning the McLaughlin situation, among others, former State Assemblyman Nelson Denis noted that New York's state legislature has been branded the worst in the nation by NYU Law School's Brennan Center for Justice.

When I recently ran my own campaign for State Assembly, as a local Republican here in the 23rd AD, these were precisely the sorts of issues I raised, too. I pointed out the obvious need to fix our rubber stamp legislature in Albany, to address legislative abuses like member items, and to open up the electoral process to newcomers by eliminating the overwhelming advantages the current system builds in for incumbency. But few in the 23rd AD seemed to be listening. I lost overwhelmingly.

Alan Hevesi spent millions to counter the negative publicity raging during his campaign and voters responded by re-electing him, despite allegations which proved serious enough to force his resignation only a month later. Yet, not every candidate had that kind of cash to spend. Callaghan certainly didn't. But incumbents in the legislature at least had their member items, despite the fallout from political scandals swirling around politicians like McLaughlin and Gonzalez.

In my own campaign, I saw my message of reform and legislative accountability repeatedly drowned out by the siren song of incumbent munificence via member items. Time and again I watched as local audiences were swayed by the enumeration of government goodies my opponent and her fellow incumbents patted themselves on the back for delivering. Nor was this self-congratulation limited to candidates of one party only.

The Queens County Republican Chairman, who, officially at least, was in my camp, repeatedly extolled the virtues of member items in his own race for re-election to the State Senate while praising my Democratic opponent for her part in the fiscal feeding frenzy. So warmly did Republican State Senator and Queens County Republican Chair Serph Maltese embrace Democratic Assemblywoman Audrey Pheffer on the campaign trail that I began to think they were really in the same party.

In fact some have suggested they are, if not dejure then de facto, noting that New York Democrats and Republicans have colluded for years in a power sharing arrangement that keeps incumbents in office by minimizing political competition within the districts.

Audrey Pheffer runs virtually unopposed for two decades in her district in the 23rd while Serph Maltese manages to do the same in his. Coincidence? Or the result of a carefully coordinated political two-step by the two major parties?

And yet even this may finally be breaking down. While I offered a largely ineffective challenge to the Democratic monopoly here in the 23rd, Maltese faced a much more serious, and better funded, effort from upstart Democratic attorney Albert Baldeo, who, in fact, nearly unseated him. Baldeo lacked the support of the Queens Democratic machine just as the Queens Republican organization denied serious support to me but, in this very Democratic year, Baldeo surprised everyone by almost toppling Maltese. Rumors abound that the Democrats, having tasted Serph's political blood in this last election, won't pass up the chance to grab his seat two years out when he runs again.

Unfortunately merely tossing out one incumbent as a result of a fortuitous shift in the political winds may not hold the key to the reform the system so desperately needs. If one aspect of our political system is incumbent collusion as exemplified by the Serph-Audrey axis in Queens, the bigger problem resides in the voters' preference for political largess over change. One reason Serph hung on in the face of a broad Democratic sweep this election year was his own penchant for playing year-round Santa in his senatorial district. Serph made no bones about his support for, and extensive use, of member items, bragging about all the pork he hauls back to the district.

As long as voters prefer government "giving," through local largess, to reducing government "taking" by excessive taxation, as long as they care more about pork in the pocket than making government more efficient, accountable and intelligent in its priorities, we won't see real change any time soon.

It's not enough to hold elections every few years. You have to have a system where change is possible. And that means voters have to want it.

Our current system advantages incumbents, not least of all through those infamous member items, while insulating them from accountability by arcane legislative practices and the use of semi-governmental public authorities for debt creation. But, as we have seen, these things, besides making for awful governance, also make corruption commonplace. As Nelson Denis wrote in The Sun, "Statistically, New York State legislators are more likely than members of the general population to be engaged in criminal activity."

But you can't condemn corruption if you're part of the problem. When voters send ethically and legally compromised incumbents back to Albany again and again, and when they consistently vote for politicians on the basis of a history of local largess rather than sound policies and track records, how can they complain when they are badly governed and excessively taxed to pay for it? Or when political parties collude to deny them real choice?

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