Half Measures Can't Fix New York's Pay-to-Play Politics

Albany's shameful moment echos an earlier set of scandals, which demonstrated that bold change is possible.

May 16, 2015
five dollar bill

Cross-posted from The Albany Times Union.

The arrest of New York Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, coming just months after the indictment of Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, has brought us to a moment of political shame: the leaders of both legislative chambers formally accused of corruption. This week Skelos, like Silver before him, stepped down from his leadership position.

The moment is shameful, but it is not without precedent. An earlier set of Albany scandals, with surprising echoes of today’s turmoil, shows that bold change is possible in such moments, if we can move reform to the heart of political debate.

At the beginning of the 20th century, a series of political scandals exposed corruption deep within New York State politics. Perhaps the biggest scandal was the revelation in 1910 that Senate Majority Leader Jotham P. Allds had accepted a bribe in exchange for killing a bill nine years earlier, when he served in the Assembly. The accusations “rocked political circles and the newspaper world as well,” wrote Prof. Robert F. Wesser. Within weeks, an investigation found proof of far-reaching corruption, including evidence that the former Assembly Speaker was also bribed. Allds was forced out of leadership, and ultimately office.

These events catalyzed momentum for change. Two years before the scandals broke, Gov. Charles Evans Hughes ran for re-election on a reform program and won. As his second term began, Hughes delivered on his rhetoric by making these issues, including a call for “direct primaries,” a top priority. At the time, party bosses picked candidates in proverbial “smoke-filled rooms,” but direct primaries — which we still have today — allow the voters to choose the party’s nominee.

Not surprisingly, leading incumbent legislators, who were largely chosen by the machines, resisted the governor’s push. The scandal provided the governor with an opening, and he railed against corruption while advocating for an end to candidates picked by “party machinery [that] can be dominated by the … special interests which desire to control the administration of government.” Suddenly, direct primaries seemed a real possibility.

A broad coalition of good government groups, academics, and religious leaders backed the governor’s efforts. It was necessary to enact direct primaries to take power away from the party machines, and prevent them from replacing one compromised politician with another, they argued.

Unfortunately, even outrage over the unprecedented scandal was not enough. Despite apparent momentum, the tarnished legislature failed to adopt direct primaries, instead passing smaller reforms.

Much of this sounds familiar to contemporary ears: scandals and calls for reform followed by half measures that serve to obscure obstruction by entrenched interests. But despite the loss for reform advocates in 1910, there was also a bigger victory. In the words of one contemporary commentator, the “direct primary had become a ‘leading’ issue.” And in November, the voters made clear they’d had enough. Huge numbers of incumbents were thrown out and control of the legislature shifted. The new government passed a number of reforms, and by the end of 1913, New York had direct primaries for all statewide offices.

Today there is again widespread agreement among reformers about the causes of corruption and how to fix it. As the Cuomo-appointed Moreland Commission to Investigate Public Corruption found before being shut down, “Albany’s pay-to-play culture is greased by a campaign finance system in which large donors set the legislative agenda.” 

As long as this system remains, there will be corruption in Albany. Our elected officials will be forced to spend inordinate amounts of time courting big donors and lobbyists, rather than listening to the voters who put them in office. Silver and Skelos — and others under investigation — may or may not be convicted and replaced, but the “show-me-the-money” culture decried by U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara will remain.

The lesson of the Allds scandal is unmistakable. We cannot accept half measures. The Legislature must adopt the Moreland Commission’s recommendations, in full — comprehensive campaign finance reform, including a small donor matching system. If the public makes clear that anything less is unacceptable, we will eventually get the bold reform called for by this moment of shame for New York State.

(Photo: Thinkstock)