The New York Times
April 8, 2013
The latest scandals from Albany have generated a slew of proposals to clear out New York’s political swamp. After the arrests of a state senator, an assemblyman, a City Council member, a suburban mayor and two Republican Party leaders last week on various corruption charges, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said he was preparing a list of reforms and tougher penalties to repair the system and — though this will take some doing — the state’s badly tarnished reputation.
Of all the proposed reforms, the most critical is to open up elections so that voters have real choices. And that means creating a workable public financing system to encourage more candidates to come forward, much as New York City did almost 25 years ago.
Nothing would do more to clean up politics in New York than healthy, hard-fought elections. Yet most members of the Legislature would do anything to avoid one, twisting and skewing the electoral system so as to make serious challenges to their hold on office virtually impossible. The New York Public Interest Research Group found that over the last 30 years, only 55 incumbents have been defeated in general elections. Last year, Mr. Cuomo made stagnation worse by approving redistricting maps that gave incumbents an even stronger grip.
Earlier this year, Mr. Cuomo promised to push for a public financing system with matching money for both incumbents and challengers, but so far he has not seemed eager to put the full weight of his office behind it. He has to realize that public financing is the linchpin of the entire reform effort. Without it, there is almost no hope for the infusion of fresh faces the system so desperately needs.
There are, of course, other useful changes to be made. The scandalous tradition that allows party leaders to sell party lines on election ballots must be brought to an end; it is this practice that led to the recent indictments of State Senator Malcolm Smith and City Councilman Daniel Halloran, among others. That party leaders can handpick the candidates for special elections after an incumbent’s retirement, death or conviction (not an uncommon occurrence these days) is another odious feature of New York’s political life.
Mr. Cuomo and the Legislature should also pass a law to make it easier for voters to change party registration (which can now take more than a year), and to revamp the state and New York City boards of elections. The city board is riddled with patronage jobs and incompetence. The state board has so little enforcement authority that it is widely dismissed as a joke.
Taken together, these systemic weaknesses have essentially left the task of cleaning things up, indictment by indictment, to the prosecutors. Preet Bharara, the United States attorney in Manhattan, and other authorities have unearthed seemingly inexhaustible acts of illegal behavior by state and local politicians. Mr. Bharara said he yearned for something better than what he called this “blunt prosecutor’s tool.” Right now, that is the best that voters have until Mr. Cuomo provides for wider and better choices at election time.