There is a very bad old joke about a mule that just won’t do what he is told. Along comes an old prospector who astounds everyone when he gets the mule to behave. He hits the mule with a 2-by-4 and announces, “First you have to get his attention.”
This brings us directly to the state Legislature who, like the mule, just won’t do what the people want it to, despite the indictment and conviction of Sheldon Silver and Dean Skelos, the two top honchos in their respective houses. They simply don’t think they have to. They like things just the way they are. They promptly elected two leaders who show all signs of being the “same old-same old” variety.
The fighting U.S. Attorney, Preet Bharara, is the modern equivalent of the man who shot Liberty Valance. After convicting the two leaders, he made the point that those who sat by and did nothing were “enablers.” He was certainly right about that. Look, many of these people have been my personal friends for years. Nevertheless, when they stand by and don’t pass a decent ethics bill that would put a stop to the corruption and nonsense, they are a big part of the problem.
Obviously, the rank-and-file members have the power to make their leaders do the right thing. By not having the guts to do so, they are really signaling their willingness to continue doing business the old way. This tells me that we are not doing our jobs in holding the people we vote for accountable. Governor Cuomo doesn’t get a pass either. He comes up with ineffectual ethics bills that turn out to be insufficient and he’s not fooling us, either. His latest is to call for a Constitutional Amendment that would strip legislators, and maybe even governors, of their pensions if convicted of crimes. Not a bad idea, but it will take several years to make that happen and that would assume that the characters in the Legislature are willing to go along. In past efforts toward that perfectly reasonable goal, the Assembly and Senate have played the old game of not agreeing on how it should be done or even IF it should be done.
So, how do you get these denizens of the legislative deep to pay attention, especially since we all know the old rule that everyone hates the Legislature but loves their own representatives? The answer is to take a page out of Teddy Roosevelt’s book. That great man knew a bunch of crooks when he saw them and went after the lot of them. It will take someone of real courage who gets elected and may want to make a name for him or herself. There is an opportunity here and this is the time to step up. There are some outstanding legislators in the Senate, like Senator Liz Krueger. She has the moxie and the decency to be a leader but for whatever reason, she won’t do it.
Instead, the people who “go along” tend to take these leadership positions. In the Assembly it’s Carl Heastie who used to be boss in the Bronx. Not exactly the man to lead a reform movement. Ditto the elevation of John Flanagan to be boss of the Senate.
So what will it take? There will undoubtedly be more indictments, more accusations and more scandal. That will lead to more newspaper editorials calling for reform and more good government groups insisting that something gets done. There might even be a Constitutional Convention that brings with it the promise of reform, but that is hopelessly naïve. The same people who get elected to the Legislature will populate that convention with their friends and allies. So wake up, everyone, and start writing letters — otherwise we really do deserve what we get.