Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Power of the Purse

Newspapers Tell Us:

Throw the Bums Out,

But Who Will Do It?

Today is Primary Day. The polls will close shortly. If you have not voted yet, do so, particularly if you are thinking of running for public office someday.

We do not advise people for whom to vote. We do call to your attention to two remarkable headlines on page one of the Daily News and the Post.

The Post's headline, on the block, which means in huge type, is BUMS AWAY.

The sub-head is: Vote today to boot the scoundrels.

The News' block type says THROW THE BUMS OUT! In smaller type, we read: "The News Says: Go to the Polls and… " before its imperative. On the side, we read "Today's Primary Is Your Chance to Change Things - Don't Blow It."

The story on p4 is headed READY FOR CHOOSE-DAY. There is an editorial on p20 which lists six legislative races in which The News has made recommendations.

On p5, the Post reports at length, with an illustration in Bat costume, of the Caped Crusader (sans Robin, the Boy Wonder). The 81-year-old Adam West, who played Batman in a 1960s TV series, is quoted as saying: "I know a thing or two about keeping Gotham City safe. Sean [Coffey] is an independent voice who wants to fight those villains in Albany."

Never before have we seen newspapers on Election Day so critical of public officials. Yet for all the roaring, there are few specific decisions the voters can make to rid the legislature of the officials who are so openly criticized.

That is the anomaly we face today. Received opinion dislikes incumbents, but to defeat them one needs strong rivals who can overcome the name recognition enjoyed by people who have held office, with all its privileges, for many years.

The public does distinguish between candidates, but is more likely to do so at the top of the ballot than at the bottom. And candidates for the state legislature are usually found in the nether portion of the scroll of elected officials, commensurate with the perceived importance of the offices they hold or seek.

In fact, state legislators do hold significant positions in government. Just because most are usually obeisant to their leaders does not mean that they could not act independently if they had the courage to risk their legislative careers by incurring the leader’s displeasure. It is true that the leader is the servant of the caucus, and will tend to follow positions they support, but he is the master of the individuals who comprise the caucus, who dare not act in consequence for fear of political termination, which has taken place in the not-too-distant past.

State politics is trapped in a vicious cycle of futility and greed. Lobbyists exert power because they give politicians reasons to support their clients. Jack Abramoff was not the only practitioner of his trade, merely the most successful.

In politics, 'reasons' is often equated with 'dollars', as if parties were having conversations on a telephone wire they believe to be tapped. Many of the gifts lobbyists make are in fact perfectly legal, as long as the recipient does not put the cash in his freezer, as former Congressman William Jefferson of Louisiana did.

Money in an envelope ($11,200) has been left in a New York City taxicab, as Carmine DeSapio, the former Democratic leader, did in 1957, or in a private car, where Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey misplaced $100,000 left in a briefcase in 1968, allegedly a gift from Dwayne Andreas of Archer Daniels Midland.

The annals of corruption extend far beyond New York State. Think Afghanistan, where the government itself is a corrupt entity. Some people think of public office, whether elected or appointed, as a pathway to riches. Often they win elections, in part by using their ill-gotten gains. The struggle for decent, honest government is perpetual, and provides a constant test of human strength and weakness. But just when the bad guys become too powerful, the public rallies and throws them out. Then it is up to the good guys, who often waste the good will they enjoyed with spasms of self-promotion and sanctimony.

This is a time in local political history where the public is disgusted by the antics of its officials, and the privileges they have visited on public employees because of the strength and political influence of their unions. Anyone who runs for governor of a state with an impending budget deficit of $16.7 billion must either be foolhardy or have an untested plan to solve the problems. Arnold Schwarzenegger couldn't do it in seven years in California, in great part because of an intractable and recalcitrant legislature, some of whose members should have been incarcerated and others committed. Time will tell whether the Empire State will be able to achieve what the Golden State did not.

There is one other difference; Andrew Cuomo was born in the United States.

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