In response to the arrest of Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, I wrote the following Op-Ed for the Daily News. You can read it below, or at http://www.nydailynews.com/opinion/paul-newell-shelly-arrest-silver-lining-article-1.2089963.
Shelly’s arrest has a silver lining:
Maybe the turmoil will finally move the needle toward reform in Albany
The culture of corruption in Albany is well known. For a generation, we’ve watched dozens of legislators arrested and tawdry headlines dominate coverage of our state capital. As the longest serving member of the fabled “three men in a room” club that dominates New York government, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver has been a central figure in that culture. The old story continued on Thursday as Silver was arrested on charges of official corruption, mail fraud, wire fraud and extortion.
If true, the charges are a shocking betrayal of New Yorkers.
Silver’s role may finally be coming to an end. Or not. He would hardly be alone as an indicted member of the Legislature. But our goal should be not to purge a few bad actors, but to end the culture of corruption as thoroughly as possible. Not just because corruption is immoral, but because it impoverishes all of us.
As a district leader in Silver’s lower Manhattan district, I see this every day. District leaders are elected, unpaid hyper-local representatives. The position has little formal power, but can be a powerful force for organizing communities. Much of the work involves advocating for tenants in danger of losing rent protection, parents seeking quality schools and residents in need of livable streets.
Time after time, our community and others around the city and state organize to oppose or improve massive luxury real-estate projects. Every time, elected officials say progressive, pro-community things in public forums. And virtually every time the developers and landlords get their way behind closed doors.
Opening those doors is not just about a few million dollars allegedly paid to an Assembly speaker by walthy interests with business before the state. It’s about a government that serves all of us.
The policies governing 20 million New Yorkers are largely written in secret. Not only by the three men, but by the people who buy their way into that room. Unsurprisingly, those policies routinely leave New York’s tenants, low-wage workers, children, parents and homeowners behind.
Consider the secret, last-minute exemption of five luxury Manhattan towers from most property taxes — including one where a condo just sold for over $100 million. The legislation doing so was slipped into a must-pass budget bill just hours before the vote.
The tab for this hundred-million-dollar giveaway will be paid by you and me for decades.
We can no longer afford this kind of governance. Silver’s arrest opens a window of opportunity. We may finally have momentum to end corruption in Albany both legal and illegal. The recipe is well known:
A ban on all outside income for New York’s legislators. We can even offer legislators a pay increase to sweeten the deal. Given the millions we lose to corruption, such a raise would be cheap at twice the price.
Public financing of elections. Billionaires like the mysterious “Developer 1” in Silver’s indictment (said to be Leonard Litwin, who has given millions to the state’s politicians), give elected officials virtually unlimited campaign contributions. In return, they get millions in special breaks not available to the rest of us. Only by publicly financing elections can we break our legislators’ dependency on the rich few.
An open and transparent legislative process. Working people will never get a fair shake in secret meetings. Legislation must be openly and honestly debated — and last minute insertions should be severely restricted. That’s basic civics.
There’s more to be done, but these reforms would go a long way to giving New Yorkers our government back.
It is said that the three top reasons for a New York State legislator to vacate his or her seat are death, indictment and retirement, in that order. Let’s seize this opportunity to end that culture of corruption. New Yorkers deserve a Speaker whose tenure closes with the clinking of champagne glasses, not of handcuffs.