Albany Morals — An Oxymoron?
By By HENRY STERN
Is Anyone Minding the Store While Media is Preoccupied With Governors’ Iniquities?
We have seen recently, newspapers have been replete with negative articles about former Governor Spitzer and Governor Paterson. They primarily deal with extra-curricular activities of these public figures, with the subtext of whether the state or campaign treasuries paid for Mr. Paterson’s hotel rooms, and whether the expenditures were incurred for a public or private purpose.
If this commotion keeps up, people will wonder whether heterosexuals can be trusted with high public office. To be fair, the bedroom adventures of former New Jersey Governor McGreevey show that homosexuals, too, find love in odd places, whether in twos or threes. It was distressing that McGreevey appointed his Israeli boy toy, Golan Cipel, as New Jersey’s Director of Homeland Security. One problem the first couple faced was that since Cipel was not an American citizen, he could not receive the security clearance required for his new position.
New York State, on the other hand, acquired its Deputy Secretary to the Governor for Public Safety (which includes homeland security) without any sexual motive whatsoever. Governor Spitzer named Republican State Senator Michael A. Balboni of Long Island to the position in order to reduce Senator Bruno’s majority. The move was successful; Democrat Craig Johnson won the special election to fill Balboni’s seat, and the Democrats were only two seats short of Senate control at that time.
Mr. Balboni is highly qualified for the Homeland Security position, with experience in security matters and good relationships throughout government. He is said to have performed well in office, and was not involved with TrooperChopperGate. We ask, however, whether he would have been appointed had he not been a sitting Republican senator. What do you think?
In this column, we do not wish to recount the day by day exposes in the papers about public figures. The most recent topic was cocaine and marijuana, after Governor Paterson answered a question put to him last night on New York 1 by saying that he had tried them briefly when he was in his twenties, but soon abandoned them.
Six years ago, on April 9, 2002, Mayor Bloomberg, when asked if he smoked marijuana, answered cheerfully: “You bet I did. And I enjoyed it.” Senator Barack Obama answered the same question on October 22, 2006, answered in the affirmative and added: “I inhaled frequently. That was the point.” This may have been a gibe at his rival’s husband, who was questioned on the subject on March 30, 1992, The Governor of Arkansas replied: “I’ve never broken a state law, but when I was in England, I experimented with marijuana a time or two, and I didn’t like it. I didn’t inhale and I never tried it again.” To be fair, attitudes toward marijuana were harsher 16 years ago.
In 2000 both Bush and Gore said they had tried marijuana in their youth. By 2004 every Democratic candidate answered the marijuana question affirmatively except General Wesley Clark and Senator Joe Lieberman, who said, “I have a reputation for giving unpopular answers at Democratic debates. I never used marijuana. Sorry.” Senator Lieberman no longer takes part in intra-Democratic debates.
We began chronicling Governor Spitzer’s activities last year with considerable optimism. A reform administration had just been elected with 69 percent of the vote. After 24 years split evenly by Governors Cuomo and Pataki, a new day appeared to be dawning. Our headline at the beginning of January 2007 was “MR. SPITZER GOES TO ALBANY: Spitzer Focuses on Ethics; Issues Five Executive Orders; Pledges Open Government.”
Alas, it was not to be. Spitzer suffered a continuing series of retreats and defeats. Much of the year was a casualty of TrooperChopperGate, which became much more important than it would have been because of the governor’s obvious cover-up and subornation of perjury over actions he could reasonably have defended, or apologized for with only minor damage.
Spitzer’s personal weakness rendered him unable to stand up to the legislature. He may have objected to what they did, but when the time came he knuckled under. The weaker he was perceived as being, the less people were inclined to listen to him, especially when he asked them to do things that would adversely affect their own political interests. His influence sharply declined, along with his poll ratings, long before the sex scandal provided the coup de grace to his governorship. Spitzer resignation took effect on March 17, at noon, on Day 443 of a term that should have lasted 1461 days. That afternoon was David Paterson’s Day One.
His inaugural took place in the Assembly chamber, under the gavel of Sheldon Silver, the survivor. The elected Comptroller was long gone, replaced by a 20-year Assemblyman chosen by his colleagues. The governor was now politically departed, replaced by his choice two years ago, a 22-year State Senator. If any change were likely to take place, it appeared that it would be a move backwards on issues of reform and transparency.
But the new governor spoke quite well, and was enthusiastically received by his peers, in part because he was not the old governor, who did not hide his contempt for the legislature, along with others with whom he disagreed.
Apart from his inaugural remarks, which were well done and realistic, the highlight of Day One for Paterson turned out to be the afternoon press conference at which he, with his wife at his side, which is protocol for public events of this nature, confessed to infidelities seven years ago, which he said were mutual. He said he wanted to make full disclosure at this time, so he would not be subject to pressure or blackmail.
This would be reasonable if he, in fact, had made full disclosure. If there were other women involved at other times, he would not only be an adulterer but a perjurer. Naturally the press set off to find other women, or other people who would claim that they were.
His campaign records were taken from the state website, and examined for irregularities. A few were found, and the governor immediately repaid the campaign, nothing much there so far. However, the hunt goes on, and the new Governor is fair game for a wolfpack of investigative reporters, each wanting to be the one that catches the fox. One cannot yet say that there is blood in the water, but there is no question that there are a lot of sharks circling the ship of state, looking for stowaways.
The problem is that all this Marx Brothers activity - looking up and down hotel corridors to see if anyone is sneaking around - is an enormous distraction from state business. Samuel Johnson said ”Nothing sharpens the mind so much as the knowledge that one is to be hanged in two weeks,” and we agree with the great essayist and lexicographer. We observe, however, that as one faces disaster, one’s priority is to save oneself, and whatever sharpness of mind can be generated is unlikely to be dissipated on public issues. My rule: “That’s why God made staff.”
The great public attention given by the press to the new governor’s frolics are in part a result of the feeling that the same standards that applied to Governor Spitzer should apply to his running mate and successor. Although the new man has nowhere near the personal resources that his predecessor put in the pursuit of pleasure, he does have considerable influence in filling jobs, which could provide financial sustenance on the installment plan for those whose services were appreciated or whose silence is required.
What all of this leads to is a relative weakening of the governor’s position in dealing with the two heads of the legislature, whose tastes are somewhat different from the relatively young Democratic executives. Some people go for sex and some go for money, often go for both.
Both tastes are legitimate as long as they are pursued properly. But the lawmakers have an enormous advantage in that they define what is legal and what is not. Compared to the senior solons, the juniors are pikers.
How is the business of the deficit-ridden recession-facing State of New York being conducted while its leaders are preoccupied with their own affairs? The legislature took off Easter Monday and Easter Tuesday (a new state holiday). They met five days before the statutory deadline to act on the budget. Were the two houses and the new governor llikely to reach agreement in that time?
When Eliot Spitzer ran for governor in 2006, New York State’s legislature had been called the most dysfunctional in the nation by the Brennan Institute for Justice at NYU Law School. Today, the legislature is just as it was, under the same leadership. The executive branch, at least its top leadership, seems to have caught the virus of
dysfunctionality. It comes from inappropriate behavior at the top, whether rage or love. It must be cured, because it diverts attention from the problems of a state facing severe economic and social challenges. But, as said in Latiln, qui custodiet ipso custodies. Who will watch the watchmen?