January 9, 2014
Our opinion: The governor resurrects campaign reform in his State of the State address, but will he follow through?
What a politician chooses to say at the end of a speech often reveals what he or she is most passionate about. In Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s State of the State Wednesday, his most direct and powerful words came after he had been speaking for an hour, when he discussed ethics and campaign reform.
Yet it now will be Mr. Cuomo’s actions, not his words, that will show whether he is committed to cleaning up the corrupt systems that permeate New York politics, or whether it just made for a nice rhetorical climax.
If Mr. Cuomo can show the leadership and political skill that he has on some other thorny issues, we just might get a cleaner government.
This is not some throwaway, wouldn’t-it-be-nice issue. At least some of the corruption we’ve seen in the Legislature in recent years — bribery, influence-buying, misuse of public funds, even sexual harassment of female staffers — has roots in the rules that govern New York’s political system. Money is vital to keeping politicians in power. When they are well-protected by rules that favor incumbents and allow them and their political parties to raise and spend obscene amounts of money from wealthy donors looking to influence state spending and policy, we get what New York has: a government in which politicians hold power with a sense of entitlement, arrogance, and obligation only to their well-heeled benefactors.
Add to that the toothless watchdog that is the state Board of Elections, and it’s no wonder some politicians think they’re above the law, or see the risks as worth the fruits of corruption.
There were some rays of hope last year when the Senate Independent Democratic Conference, which shares power in that chamber, produced a fairly comprehensive proposal. There was serious talk at last of lowering contribution limits, overhauling the Board of Elections, and closing loopholes like the one that lets wealthy people virtually clone themselves into limited liability corporations, each a separate “person” who can make political contributions. Momentum seemed to be growing, too, for a system similar to New York City’s of public financing campaigns, under which small donations would gain greater importance in elections, forcing politicians to pay more attention to average voters.
Then the Senate Republicans dug in against public financing, while Mr. Cuomo and Assembly Democrats came out with much less inspiring proposals. So reform fizzled.
Mr. Cuomo has shown that he can push contentious measures through the Legislature — like gun control and marriage equality. This year he needs to summon the cooperation he spoke of yesterday and bring to bear on lawmakers a sense of shared responsibility — for both the credit when government does right and the blame when it does wrong.
If, on the other hand, he handles it the way he did last year, New Yorkers should resign themselves to more of the same, and hear those inspiring words at the speech’s end as just that.