Monday’s conviction of former New York Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, arguably the most powerful politician in New York for two decades, may close another chapter in Albany’s perpetual wave of scandal. Coming at the same time that his one-time colleague, former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, faces similar charges, many looking to change the state’s cash-for-policy culture are wondering if their “reform moment” has arrived.
Recent history provides little reason for optimism. Skelos was the fourth state Senate majority leader to be indicted on corruption charges in seven years. In that same period, 20 legislators have been charged with or convicted of corruption. None of these scandals have been followed by the bold, democracy-strengthening reforms activists have sought.
It is time to ask why. A successful reform effort in early 20th Century New York — following the conviction of an Assembly Speaker and accusations of a former State Senate Majority Leader’s corruption — offers an important lesson in how to mobilize the public behind change.
Those earlier reformers promised not to “fix” a system many believed was unalterably corrupt, but to disrupt it by transferring power back to the voters.
Silver’s conviction and the allegations against Skelos are shocking — but they’re nothing new. Before the trials began, a commission to investigate public corruption appointed (and then disbanded) by Gov. Cuomo uncovered a “pay to play culture . . . greased by a campaign finance system in which large donors set the legislative agenda,” and called for a campaign finance system overhaul, with voluntary public financing, robust disclosure and tighter rules.
Each new indictment in Albany, and there have been 22 in the last decade, has been followed by calls for sweeping reforms. They have gone almost uniformly ignored.
Yet given the public disgust — 92% of New Yorkers say corruption in state government is a serious problem — it is fair to ask why voters haven’t punished legislators for their failure to act. In 2012 and 2014, the state’s Legislature had among the lowest turnover rates in the country.
Cynicism is a likely cause. In a recent Quinnipiac University poll, only 28% of New Yorkers thought that state “elected officials are capable of ending political corruption in Albany.” New Yorkers seem to be saying it’s not possible to “reform” a place with such deep rot.
Here is where the lessons from another dismal time in New York’s history can help. In 1910, Albany was rocked by allegations that Senate Majority Leader Jotham P. Allds had accepted a bribe to kill a bill. A subsequent investigation found pervasive corruption throughout the statehouse, including evidence that the former Assembly speaker was also bribed.
Reformers didn’t respond to the scandal by calling for piecemeal changes to a broken system. Instead, they urged legislators to blow the system up by mandating “direct primaries” in elections — allowing New Yorkers to vote for someone not chosen by corrupt party bosses.
The equivalent today? Campaign finance reform that includes lower campaign contribution limits and a small donor matching system. This would encourage candidates to raise money from their constituents, rather than a few wealthy donors.
In the recent past, reformers framed these changes as a way to get big money out of politics — something many Americans don’t believe is possible.
Reformers are likely to have more success if they frame these changes in the same way advocates for the direct primary law did: as giving voters a real choice by allowing ordinary citizens to run competitive campaigns without the support of big donors or the party machine.
That argument would not appeal to some incumbent legislators, of course. In fact, the New York Legislature in 1910 repeatedly rebuffed attempts to pass a direct primary law. But voters eventually had their say, throwing out legislators who resisted change and electing new ones to pass it. Their success — including passage of a new direct primary law by the Legislature in 1911 — can serve as a model for today’s concerned New Yorkers.