For the last few weeks, New Yorkers have been exposed to the spectacle of politicians caught in various inappropriate behaviors – sexual, financial or both. Even if the misdeeds of the accused officials are a subject long familiar to the political community, the public exposure changes the game by enabling the media to say what it believed all along, but did not print for lack of proof.
Vito Lopez is the prime example of this implosion. His fall from grace is particularly striking. Some months ago he was the leader of the Democratic Party in Kings County, the most populous county in New York State. Lopez was Chairman of the Assembly Housing Committee, responsible for approving the expenditure of hundreds of millions of dollars spent on public housing. His girlfriend was earning over $300,000 per year working for organizations he controlled, which would donate heavily to his political campaigns. The whole web of arrangements turned out to be a house of cards, but nonetheless until someone removed one card, it stood for over a decade.
Awareness is the hallmark of this year’s crop of public scandals. It is not that so many fresh crimes have been committed, it is that more political white-collar criminals are being brought to justice, many by US Attorneys Preet Bharara for the Southern District of New York, which includes Manhattan and the Bronx, and Loretta Lynch of the state’s Eastern District which encompasses Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island. What intrigues us is that there has been a low-grade awareness in the political community that the people who were arrested were misbehaving in one way or another. But because it could not be proven at that time, they were treated with all the deference that is due to legitimate public officials. It is only after they were identified, sometimes taped by their fellow conspirators, that they became objects of public scorn. Other politicians have acquiesced in tyranny, enabling them to abuse their power for personal gain. The enablers now demand that the accused be removed from office as if they were purifying the air in a tent previously occupied by a flatulent elephant.
The principal problem in politics is campaign spending. If the entrance fee to a political contest averages seven figures, hardly anyone unconnected would be able to run. We fully support Andrew Cuomo’s proposal to roughly apply New York City’s publicly funded campaign system to races in New York State.
However, one never knows in cases like this whether the nominal sponsors of a bill will actually rally support for it, what amount of pressure they will exert to get it passed and whether they will acquiesce to those who fear that their interests will be hurt by a level playing field. After all, if a playing field were suddenly leveled, what would that do to the players who are now at the higher elevation?
A raft of political leaders has been indicted and faces trial in the summer. By that time, there may be others who are caught in the toils of justice. After all, why we should believe today that every public official who is a wrongdoer has been unmasked? With elections stacked, as they are today, in favor of wealthy candidates and incumbents, the courts are the best way to create vacancies.