The Empire Strikes Out

By: - March 19, 2010 12:00 am

New York’s governors have often left an imprint. DeWitt Clinton linked the East to the Midwest through the Erie Canal. Cousins Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt ascended to the White House. Nelson Rockefeller was a big thinker who launched ambitious programs in education, urban housing, race relations, mental health, parks and fiscal policy. Mario Cuomo inspired a generation with his plea that “we must be the family of New York, feeling one another’s pain, sharing one another’s blessings.”

Today, the family of New York is dysfunctional and definitely feeling pain. Back-to-back failed governors Eliot Spitzer and David Paterson have stained the state’s image through scandal. Both pledged to rebuild trust in government but instead have weakened it. Spitzer resigned two years ago after admitting he paid for a call girl, and his successor, Paterson, is under investigation for interfering -with the help of state police–in an aide’s domestic violence case. 

“Between Paterson and Spitzer, this isn’t making New York State look good,” says Larry Migdel, a 58-year-old electrician and Brooklyn native whom interviewed on the street in Manhattan. Polls suggest that the vast majority of New Yorkers agree with him.

Spitzer and Paterson are not the only ones in New York’s rogues gallery. Former state Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno was convicted in December of concealing payments he received from a businessman who wanted help from the Legislature. U.S. Rep. Charles Rangel recently stepped down as House Ways and Means Committee chairman after accepting prohibited corporate-sponsored trips to the Caribbean, and U.S. Rep. Eric Massa is accused of sexually harassing male aides.

But the greatest embarrassment attaches to Paterson, the state’s first African American governor. In January, when he was a likely candidate for election to a full term, Paterson told the Legislature that he would make ethics reform a top priority this year “to restore the trust and faith that people deserve.”

Paterson proposed a “Reform Albany Act” that included public campaign financing to limit contributions, a ban on corporate donations and term limits for statewide elected officials. He proposed creating an independent state ethics commission to enforce ethics and campaign finance laws. Government watchdog groups called the proposal the most comprehensive ethics legislation in state history.

“The performance of our state government has not lived up to the ideals of the people of New York,” Paterson said. “Bold steps have become necessary to restore the faith of New Yorkers in their government.”

But Paterson’s credibility on ethics reform has been shattered by his own troubles. Few seem to care at this point what ethics legislation Paterson wants. He is a lame duck after bowing out of the governor’s race when the New York Times disclosed his domestic violence intervention. The state Commission on Public Integrity also accused Paterson of lying under oath during an investigation of how he accepted five free World Series tickets behind home plate (Paterson said attending the game was part of his ceremonial duties).

The charges have added fuel to New Yorkers’ already well-developed sense of cynicism about public life in general. “I believe all people in power, whether they are elected officials or others, have a very eroded sense of ethics,” says Greg Centeno, 60, an architect and native of the Bronx. “It’s not a problem inherent to New York. It’s inherent in our society in general.”

Though some state officials have urged the governor to resign, Paterson says he wants to stay on the job until voters choose a successor. New Yorkers seem willing to grant him that much. A recent Siena Research poll showed that while seven in 10 voters hold an unfavorable view of Paterson, 55 percent say the governor should serve the rest of the term instead of resigning and allowing Lieutenant Governor Richard Ravitch to take over. “He might as well finish,” Migdel says. “Why let someone else in there until November?”

Paterson says he will be cleared of all the charges. “I have never abused my office, not now, not ever,” he said in a recent statement . But three of Paterson’s top aides and two senior State Police officials who quit in the wake of the scandal have not given him the benefit of the doubt. President Obama long ago gave up on Paterson, asking him last fall to drop plans to run for election so state Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, Mario’s son, could snare the Democratic nomination.  Polls show Cuomo is the frontrunner to replace Paterson.

Whatever its outcome, the scandal badly weakens Paterson’s ability to lead the state through its most serious fiscal emergency in decades. New York has a billion shortfall for the budget year that begins April 1. It is hard to see how a tarnished governor can be effective in resolving the budget crisis-or any of New York’s myriad of long-term governmental problems.


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Stephen Fehr

Stephen Fehr is a senior officer with Pew’s government performance portfolio. He is a lead writer on many of the products generated by the portfolio, specializing in state and local fiscal health.