A Turn for the Better In State Government
By HENRY STERN
For nine years, we have been writing about city and state government, from the point of view of someone who has been very fortunate to have enjoyed (more often than not) 53 eventful years in New York City public affairs, in the executive, legislative and judicial branches, as a civic groups watchdog and as a blogger.
The substance of the articles, all of which are available on our blog, www.nycivic.org, tend to be related to fiscal responsibility, public and private corruption, and the performance of elected officials. There is widespread discontent with the state legislature and the performance of its swollen and self-serving solons. We have also seen arrests and indictments of city and state officials for dishonesty (with an occasional rap for assaulting a girlfriend, a newspaper photographer, a staff member or a police officer).
Public attention focuses on notorious cases, based on the importance of the accused and the dimension of the misconduct. The case of former Gov. Eliot Spitzer is a textbook example. The governor is the most important public official in the state, although the United States Senators may have more national influence. The governor’s behavior was not that grievous a criminal offense because it was sex between adults who were more than consenting.
The Mann Act is a prosecutorial weapon to obtain guilty pleas from people who do not want to go to trial on a charge punishable by a longer sentence. The law was originally the White Slave Traffic Act of 1910. It prohibits the interstate transportation of females for ‘immoral purposes’. The first person prosecuted under the act was the first African-American heavyweight boxing champion of the world, Jack Johnson, who had an affair with a white prostitute, whom he later married. Johnson was later rearrested for an earlier crossing of a state line with another woman, who testified against him. He was found guilty and sentenced to a year and a day in prison, the maximum under the law.
What was really shocking in the Spitzer case was the absurdity of it all. Why should a governor with an attractive, intelligent and devoted wife jeopardize his reputation, his family’s good name and his successful career for momentary carnal gratification? And why pay thousands of dollars for a service available at a far lower cost? What this shows is a person so possessed and self-deluded that he really was not fit to be governor. One could not rely on his judgment on important issues because of the enormous lack of self-control he repeatedly demonstrated.
Even so, the legislature would not have impeached him for his dalliances if they didn’t hate him already, for his bullying and threats, and the general contempt he showed for all of them. The contrast with Andrew Cuomo is striking. He may or may not have any higher opinion of his colleagues in government than Spitzer had, but he knows what to say and what not to say to keep people happy and to get them to do what he wants them to do.
When the accused governor asked Speaker Sheldon Silver about his prospects if the Assembly were to consider his impeachment, he was told that he would receive no more than a handful of votes against impeachment. (I wasn’t there at the conversation, of course, but it has been widely reported and not contradicted. The statement has the ring of truth.) The sexual indulgence simply provided an excuse for the dysfunctional legislature to rid itself of a pesky governor, who would put the rest of them in jail if he could.
Unfortunately, the forced resignation took state government out of the frying pan into the fire. It would be too painful to recount the errors, misjudgments, false and misleading statements, intrusions into criminal cases, appointments and dismissals of personnel, not to mention other embarrassments that marred Gov. Spitzer’s successor’s term.
The strong start by Gov. Cuomo has raised some hopes that the state may, after all, be governable. The sight of Republican leader Skelos and Speaker Silver, along with their minority counterparts in each house, shows that it is possible for people to work together, in their own interest of course, regardless of party.
One must not forget, however, that the state’s basic problems remain unsolved despite the remarkable agreement by its leaders. The financial problem looms every year, pension and interest costs may continue their upward spiral. The cuts in education and social services will have some cost, but failure to stem the constant increases in these big-budget items would be inexcusable.
Looking back to 1995, Gov. Pataki’s first year, he too reduced the budget. Then the state reverted to its constant upward climb in expenditures. We hope that Gov. Cuomo will not be a one-year wonder, but will continue to exhibit fiscal responsibility despite the demands of state employees. What is not said is that there are other ways to cut the budget, locating and excising unnecessary or excessive expenditures, without closing down programs which are essential to physical or mental health and competently administered. It takes more work to cut with a scalpel than with a meat axe, but if the result is superior service at lower cost, the effort will be worthwhile.
Day 90 - Some things have changed.