Is New York the Most Corrupt State?

In the wake of New York Gov. David Paterson's latest scandal, The Economist said, "Dysfunctional Albanyis frequently cited as the nation's worst state government—a title for which there is intense competition."

When I was in high school in Brooklyn, we had a nickname for the back room at a nearby diner. We called it "the mafia room," because smoking cigarettes was allowed there. Little did we know: years later The Village Voice revealed that very room was where the Kings County Democratic Executive Committee would gather to decide who would be the local judges on the basis of who had the most sterling credentials. I'm joking; they handed out judgeships as pure patronage for whichever holder of a J.D. had accrued the most political chits.

The mafia room may have changed its character since the smoking ban took effect, but the system for choosing elected officials, alas, has not. As New York Gov. David Paterson makes front-page headlines for his ethical imbroglios almost daily, it is worth explaining to the uninitiated that Paterson is merely typical of the state's political culture.

You have to feel bad for Paterson: all he did was play by the rules of New York state politics, and now he is a pariah for it. Just a few years ago he was a well-liked state senator, quietly minding his own business, which is the most New Yorkers can hope for from their legislators. Then, in a surprise move of ticket balancing, Democratic gubernatorial nominee Eliot Spitzer asked him to join his ticket. Lieutenant governor is traditionally the ultimate no-show job, and Paterson probably thought that he would be left alone to keep cheating on his wife in peace. He was wrong.

Spitzer, the former crusading attorney general who campaigned on a pledge to shake up Albany's ossified culture, was caught consorting with a prostitute. After Spitzer's resignation, Paterson was thrust into the spotlight. Paterson thought it best to come clean about his past infidelities and drug use, and was given a pass by an electorate and media exhausted of scandal. But ever since, he has been under a microscope. When Sen. Hillary Clinton resigned to become secretary of state, Paterson dragged out the process of choosing her successor, ultimately settling on a new congresswoman from a swing district upstate, Kirsten Gillibrand. By passing over more experienced women, such as Rep. Carolyn Maloney, he invited the prospect of a primary challenge, and the Democrats might lose both the Senate seat and Gillibrand's House seat. With Paterson's approval ratings at Cheneyesque lows, President Obama urged the governor not to run for reelection. Paterson dug in his heels but finally dropped out when The New York Times revealed that Paterson confidant Dennis Johnson had been convicted of selling drugs as a youth and had been more recently accused of domestic violence, and that Paterson and the state police had spoken with Johnson's accuser.

Misuse of police is a time-honored tradition in New York. Paterson may have learned the technique from Spitzer, whose staffers had state police search for politically damaging information about state Senate leader Joe Bruno. Although Spitzer was the one damaged by the ensuing scandal, it turns out he was on to something. Bruno was later convicted of federal felony corruption charges for reaping $3.2 million in consulting fees and failing to disclose his conflicts of interest. Former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani gave his mistress, Judith Nathan, a police driver and security escort.

And appointing unqualified cronies? Giuliani turned his driver, Bernie Kerik, into a police commissioner and recommended him to the Bush administration as secretary of Homeland Security. That fell through when it was revealed that Kerik had a few unsavory skeletons in his closet, such as carrying on an affair with publisher Judith Regan in an apartment intended for workers at Ground Zero. In 2006, Kerik pleaded guilty to accepting free renovations to his home from a contractor that had been accused of having ties to organized crime. Kerik was recently sentenced to four years in prison for corruption that the judge described as reaching "operatic proportions."

If you think such associations might prove damaging to Giuliani's future in New York state politics, you obviously don't know New York: state Republicans have tried to recruit Giuliani to run for governor or senator in 2010, largely because he is seen as their most electable prospect.

Even the state officials in charge of monitoring misuse of public funds have been convicted of misusing funds themselves. Alan G. Hevesi resigned as state comptroller in 2006 after he pled guilty to defrauding the state government by assigning a state worker to serve as a driver for his wife to do household chores. State Attorney General Andrew Cuomo is now investigating allegations that investment firms doing business with the state pension fund gave contracts to Hevesi's aides and political allies. (The New York Timesdescribes this as "a sprawling investigation involving some of the most prominent players in New York's political and financial worlds.")

New Yorkers should have known better than to elect Hevesi, a former state senator, to the comptroller's office. In the context of the state Senate, a relatively harmless buffoon like Paterson looks like a moral crusader on the order of Teddy Roosevelt. Sen. Pedro Espada is being pursued by Cuomo to cooperate with a months-old subpoena, saying in court papers that Espada may have violated state election law, state law regarding nonprofit groups, and state labor law. Sen. Hiram Monserrate was convicted last year of assaulting his girlfriend and was kicked out of the state Senate. Maybe in Iowa that would end your political career, but not in New York, where Monserrate is running to reclaim his seat, an effort his supporters prepared for by distributing flyers that accused an opponent in the upcoming primary of being a pawn of "mega-rich gay fanatics."

All this corruption has a storied history. Boss Tweed, the infamous executor of the Tammany Hall political machine in the 19th century, had proudly proclaimed his business to be "honest graft." Tweed and his defenders maintained that the machine was just greasing the wheels of constituent services.

Maybe so, but nowadays New York's corruption does not make it function more efficiently or democratically. Albany is known for being a place where "three men in a room" (and, yes, they have always been men) make all state policy: the governor, the state Senate majority leader, and the speaker of the State assembly. Other legislators are virtually powerless, and, as Paterson shows, ill prepared to govern should the responsibility fall to them. For decades the Democrats controlled the state legislature while the Republicans, despite being outnumbered in voter registration 5–3, but thanks to gerrymandering, controlled the Senate. They cut deals that benefited each other—such as trading a state senate seat to the Democrats in exchange for a repeal of the commuter tax—rather than the state as a whole.

Some New Yorkers might have been naive enough to think that the Democrats finally winning control of the state Senate in 2008, for the first time since 1965, would get things moving. But little did they know that two heretofore obscure state senators—Espada and Monserrate, of course—would switch to the Republican caucus and return the GOP to the majority. Until, that is, Monserrate returned to the Democrats a few weeks later, causing an even split between the party caucuses and months of confusion and argument over who was in control, causing massive legislative gridlock. How was the impasse resolved? By the Democrats buying back Espada's loyalty with the Senate majority leadership.

The political culture is poisoned from the ground up: the local party machines pick everything from judges to city-council members to state legislators in, literally, back rooms. The path to power is through political clubs, like the Harlem machine that spawned Paterson and U.S. Rep. Charlie Rangel, who recently stepped down from his chairmanship of the Ways and Means Committee after the House ethics committee found he had violated gift rules by accepting corporate funding for trips. (Rangel remains under investigation for further charges, including misuse of rent-controlled apartments in New York.)

Every so often the corruption gets so egregious that a new generation replaces them, as when, in the 1980s, virtually the entire Bronx Democratic establishment was ensnared in various scandals, and a little-known city councilman named Fernando Ferrer was chosen, because he was the highest-ranking official with a clean record, to replace the disgraced borough president. This lasts for a few years, but in due course the reformers become the machine, and the process begins anew.