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Eye on the News

Fred Siegel
Rotten
Led by New York, big-government blue states sink deeper into corruption.
26 February 2010

American politics, particularly in the big-government, ever-more-insolvent blue states, are increasingly driven by scandal. We are witnessing a meltdown of the political class in states where the growth of government has, even in weakened economies, offered bountiful opportunities for living well off the public purse. Illinois, New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut have all had to force corrupt governors from office in recent years. But now New York is sprinting ahead in the scandal sweepstakes. If extraordinary front-page editorials in today’s New York Daily News and New York Post calling for the resignation of David Paterson are any measure, the Empire State is headed for its third governor in three years.

That isn’t to say that Illinois, New Jersey, and Connecticut haven’t put up a good fight. A recent string of scandals helped defeat New Jersey governor John Corzine at the polls and forced Connecticut senator Chris Dodd to drop his reelection bid. In Illinois, Barack Obama’s path to the presidency was paved by two scandals against would-be opponents that opened the door to the Senate for him. The governor whom Obama twice supported for office, Rod Blagojevich, has been impeached, in part for trying to sell Obama’s Senate seat, while the man who bought the seat, Roland Burris, has been forced to step aside come November. Alexi Giannoulias—Obama’s buddy, heir to the Broadway Bank, and the Democratic nominee for the Obama-Burris seat—is involved in his own troubles. His family’s once-thriving bank made loans to the mob-associated Michael “Jaws” Giorango, who was convicted of running gambling and prostitution operations, and to Tony Rezko, a fixer with close ties to both Obama and Blagojevich. It seems unfair not to give Scott Lee Cohen, briefly this year’s nominee for Illinois lieutenant governor, a passing mention. Cohen, a pawnbroker who self-financed his runaway victory despite being unable to pay child support to his ex-wife, dropped out of the race after accusations came to light that he had held a knife to the throat of one of his girlfriends, a prostitute.

And then there’s Obama’s hometown of Chicago, where he racked up an enormous majority in the Democratic Party presidential primary that was crucial to his early lead over Hillary Clinton in the popular vote count. A new study from the Better Government Association notes that in the past 36 years, “31 sitting or former Chicago aldermen have been convicted of corruption or other crimes.”

Illinois and New Jersey are probably the only two states where corruption has burrowed so deeply as to involve the public medical schools. In Illinois, until recently, you could buy admission to the state’s medical school. In New Jersey, thanks to the patronage of Senator Robert Menendez of Hudson County—a man elected to the U.S. Senate despite being caught on tape engaging in a shakedown—until last year you could buy the presidency of the University of Medicine and Dentistry. Shocking? Not when you remember why former New Jersey senator Robert “the Torch” Torricelli was forced to drop out of his 2002 campaign for reelection: he had accepted gifts from David Chang, a lobbyist of sorts for nuclear North Korea. New Jersey law clearly states that in the final 51 days of a campaign, a candidate, no matter how badly tarnished, can’t be replaced by a substitute. Never mind: Torricelli’s fellow Democrats on the New Jersey Supreme Court shredded the law and allowed him to be replaced by fellow Democrat Frank Lautenberg, a former U.S. senator who went on to win the election. Lautenberg, whose accomplishments as senator are less than noteworthy, was one of the 60 votes that allowed President Obama to push his health-care proposals.

But for all this, New York doesn’t need to take a backseat to Illinois and New Jersey. In the past few years, Joe Bruno, the Republican temporary president of the New York State Senate, and Democrat Alan Hevesi, the New York State comptroller, have been forced to step down and then convicted of taking bribes. Meanwhile, the inventory of state legislators and New York City Council members caught up in shenanigans is too long to list, though Hiram Monserrate is worthy of special mention. Monserrate, who has enjoyed close ties with the Scientologists, helped paralyze the State Senate for two months this past summer while he switched back and forth between the parties, looking to buy himself the best possible deal. Earlier, he had assaulted a lady friend with a piece of broken glass. When that case finally came before the bar of justice, Monserrate, an embarrassment even in Albany, was rebuked by the courts and expelled from the Senate.

Now, Charlie Rangel—New York State’s ranking member in the U.S. Congress and the chair of the House’s powerful, tax-writing Committee on Ways and Means—has been given a slap on the wrist by his fellow Democrats on the House Ethics Committee for taking lobbyist money for a junket to the Caribbean. Rangel, who is far better at raising other people’s taxes than at paying his own, also recently discovered that his taxable net worth was roughly $1.5 million more than he had previously stated.

But when all is said and done, top billing in this debauched political floor show goes to the governorship of New York. Two years ago, Eliot Spitzer, anointed by The New Republic as a liberal messiah—this was in the pre-Obama days—had a brief rocky stretch as governor after he was caught using the state police to try to gather incriminating evidence about political rival Joe Bruno. But it was his patronage of a brothel that brought down this self-proclaimed supporter of women’s rights.

The state police and the abuse of women play a similarly prominent role in the current scandal involving Spitzer’s successor, David Paterson. One of Paterson’s first acts after his predecessor’s fall from grace was to admit his own extramarital affairs, including with staff members, and past drug use. He also demanded that Attorney General Andrew Cuomo investigate the state police, claiming that it had a special unit to collect information on public figures. Cuomo’s investigation, released last year, unearthed no such unit, but it did find political interference by state police higher-ups, including an attempt to lessen the impact of a domestic-violence report involving a Republican congressman.

Now, in the middle of a budget crisis, Paterson has been caught in a new disgrace in which, like Spitzer, he’s apparently put the state police to personal use. One of his closest aides, David Johnson, had by all accounts physically intimidated a girlfriend who went to court to receive an order of protection against him. But before she was to testify in court, she was visited by state police superintendent Harry Corbitt. She never testified. Key political allies have now called on Paterson to end his reelection campaign. Even more ominously, some political figures, including Congresswoman Nita Lowey, are now saying publicly what they’ve been discussing privately: that it’s time for the inept Paterson, who’s been largely ignored by the state’s spendthrift legislature, to step down from office. A resignation by the floundering Paterson would turn the governorship over to his unelected lieutenant governor, Richard Ravitch, who no longer seems to be in regular contact with Paterson.

Ravitch owes his office to a dubious ruling by New York’s highest court, the Court of Appeals. It was a decision, like that in the Torricelli case, that directly contradicted the state’s constitution, which made no provision for appointing a lieutenant governor should the post become vacant. The constitution does provide that in such a case, the president of the State Senate “shall perform all the duties of the lieutenant governor.” But as they eyed the chaos in the Senate—where Joe Bruno had been forced to resign as president, and where a collection of parochial pols, including the ineffable Monserrate, were running the show—the majority of the justices decided that the letter of the law needed to be ignored. (This may turn out for the best. As temporary president of the Senate, Democratic Majority Leader Malcolm Smith would have been next in the line of succession to the governorship, if not for the court’s legitimating Ravitch’s appointment. If Smith had become governor, he too would have been mired in scandal, having played a key role in the rigged bidding process that handed a lucrative state contract to run casinos to a group of which he was a partner.)

Paterson’s appointment of Ravitch as lieutenant governor may be recorded as his best decision. The widely respected 75-year-old Ravitch, who played a key role in New York City’s 1975 fiscal crisis, has no political ambitions, and he has the intelligence and integrity, despite a predilection for new taxes, to stabilize the ship of state for the time being. In fact, it is the presence of Ravitch in the lieutenant governorship that makes it possible to call for Paterson’s immediate resignation.

In both New York and Illinois, there is a close connection between fiscal irresponsibility and political malfeasance. Both states are in marked decline; both are essentially one-party polities run by Democrats (although the Republicans, when in office, have engaged in their fair share of corruption). In both cases, a largely unaccountable political class left unchecked by a decreasingly engaged electorate has, buffered by the rhetoric of compassion, gone into business for itself. Big government may not be good for the economy or for the citizens, but it been very good for a political class that has thrived on state spending despite the growing risk of getting hauled off to the hoosegow. In New York and Illinois, oversized government seems immune to reform; scandals have led only to new scandals.

In the absence of functioning political and fiscal systems, excessive spending in New York and Illinois, like that in famously corrupt Greece and Spain, can probably be restrained only by the bond market. But by the time that happens, we can expect each of these semi-sovereign entities to be in for a long stretch of hard times.

Fred Siegel is a visiting professor at St. Francis College and a contributing editor of City Journal.

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