There is apparently only one way of getting New York State’s elected representatives out of office—they have to be indicted or the focus of a scandal. The fall of Sheldon Silver is not quite a Shakespearean tragedy, but it is riveting nonetheless. For twenty years he was probably the most powerful person in the state government, the speaker of the state assembly, remaining in place as a revolving door of five different governors came and went, the most resolute of the legendary “three men in a room” (along with the senate majority Leader and the governor) the three deities who actually determined what happened in New York State. And in 6 days, all of his power was gone. On the good side: he was generally a good liberal, and generally fought for good liberal causes. He will be missed. On the bad side: ideology is relatively unimportant in New York State politics. It’s a matter of who gets what from whom and how. And in this, Silver was the incarnation of how constricted, how sclerotic, how undemocratic New York State government has become.
I have been thinking about my own time in Albany, in the late 1990s, when I was working in the Empire State Plaza, adjacent to the State Capitol, as editor of the Encyclopedia of New York State. We were always running into politicians. One day, me and some staff members of the encyclopedia were at lunch at Lombardo’s, an Italian restaurant a few blocks from the Capitol. Sitting at the next table was Joe Bruno, the powerful majority leader of the state senate. They said to me, “Peter, go introduce yourself.” So I did: “Hi, I’m Peter Eisenstadt, the editor in chief of the Encyclopedia of New York State, and I’d like to thank the state senate for its support.” And barely looking up from his meal, he replied: “Well then, you better get back to work.” Like Silver, Bruno fell from power in a scandal.
Perhaps I should tell you the story of how I got to Albany, editing an encyclopedia. Back in 1997, I was living in Rochester, and not very happy. I had moved to Rochester in 1995 for a job that was not working out, and I correctly assumed that I would soon be out of work. Drawing on my previous experience as an encyclopedia editor, I proposed to Syracuse University Press that I edit an encyclopedia of New York State. It was a real longshot. The folks at Syracuse thought it was a good idea, but of course the problem was money. So they asked their Albany lobbyist, a wonderful woman named Beth Rougeux, if she could help. (I learned from Beth the multiple skills and talents that go into being a good lobbyist.) She in turn made an “ask” to State Senator John DeFrancisco, from the Syracuse area. And he in turn, in the next state budget, included a “member’s item”, the state equivalent of an earmark, for the encyclopedia, to the tune of about $660,000. In the log-rolling, “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine” way that Albany works, it passed without discussion.
The encyclopedia got started. And for the next eight years I and my staff toiled away, and after running through about $2 million (much of the remaining money was from the National Endowment of Humanities), the encyclopedia was published, all 2,000 pages and 2 million words of it.) Senator DeFrancisco, a very pleasant man in my personal dealings with him, immediately became my all-time favorite Republican, slightly ahead of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. Even the unfortunate fact that he led the fight in the State Senate to block the passage of the same-sex marriage bill did little to challenge my profound admiration.
Now, you might argue, this is no way to fund an encyclopedia. And that with all of its crumbling roads and cities, its abysmal record of high school graduation and the like, New York State taxpayers had better things to do with $660,000 than help fund the publication of a big book, and provide me with gainful employment. Or at least, there should have been some public discussion of how this money was to be used. I don’t disagree with you. But that’s not how things work in Albany. It’s all a matter of knowing who to ask and how to ask for it. Mind you, nothing that anyone did in the funding of the Encyclopedia has the slightest taint of illegality. Senator DeFrancisco asked for nothing directly in return for the member’s item. Getting as much money as he could for Syracuse University in Albany was one of his jobs. It was just a way of ensuring that he would be warmly supported in his next election. He was. He has been in office since 1992. He has never lacked for campaign contributions.
I guess this is to say that when it mattered to me, I was not above playing the usual Albany game. The encyclopedia, I felt, in my self-interested way, was a worthwhile project, and without Senator DeFrancisco’s member’s item, the Encyclopedia certainly never would have been written. The system of political favors is ubiquitous. I was not, and am not above it.
Periodic scandals—Silver and Bruno, two governors in a row, Spitzer and Patterson-are not enough to change the system. How to change this? Limit or eliminate outside earning by elected officials. Public financing for all elections. Some sort of modified proportional representation or multi-candidate districts to create more rotation in office. All of these suggestions are utopian. More practical suggestions might include stronger ethics laws, one’s that were really enforced, and a far more open budget process. But perhaps the biggest problem in New York State is that most people don’t care, or throw up their hands and say there is no way to change “the system.” Perhaps they are right. But a belief that democracy is impossible becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. To move from “three men in a room” to “20 million people in a room” will not be an easy task. But the start is to demand more, much more, from our elected representatives.