Political corruption hangs like a dark shroud over New York.
And people are fed up.
They always had reason to believe that a little corruption is the bedfellow of politics. What’s new is that they no longer accept this with a well-practiced shrug. Now they’re angry. And that aggravation is spiking with a spate of high-profile convictions.
Most galling was the double takedown late last year of two of the most powerful and prominent elected officials in New York — former State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, a Democrat from Manhattan, and former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, a Republican from Rockville Centre.
Now the public sees betrayals that cut across political parties, and officials major and minor. They cut across geography, from upstate to downstate. And they cut across all levels of government — state, county, town, village, school district, special district, law enforcement.
Now people see clearly the dishonesty and naked self-interest and hypocrisy. And they understand as never before that they themselves pay the price for that — in the form of government contracts that are inflated or unnecessary or not open to bidding, patronage jobs given to unqualified insiders, and often-lucrative public pensions ladled out to those who violate the public’s trust.
And as that trust erodes, cynicism spreads. Many voters no longer wonder whether more corruption will be uncovered. For them it’s a matter of when, and who the perpetrators will be.
A primal scream is growing, and it’s been given voice in an exclusive Newsday/News 12/Siena College poll.
Some 84 percent of Long Islanders agreed that corruption among elected officials on Long Island is a serious problem. That frustration is broad and deeply rooted: The figure topped 80 percent in each of the 25 demographic groups studied.
More important, Long Islanders no longer are resigned about corruption. When asked to choose between two statements — one saying that we can try to address corruption but it’s an inevitable part of politics, the other stating that corruption must be ended once and for all because it damages our democracy and costs taxpayers financially — Long Islanders overwhelmingly picked the latter, 81 percent to 17 percent.
The conclusion is clear. A storm has made landfall. And political leaders ignore it or belittle it at their peril.
The timing is auspicious. Every state legislator is up for election this fall. No one should feel comfortable. A host of bills to combat public corruption is circulating in both houses in Albany. What lawmakers do about them in the current session that ends in June will be part of their record, and they will be judged accordingly. The people want change and are poised to punish those who thwart reform.
The Siena poll also shows that Long Island voters know what reforms they want.
First and foremost, they want officials convicted of felonies related to their jobs to lose their public pensions. Nearly 80 percent agree on that. And again, the support is remarkably consistent across demographic groups.
We have advocated repeatedly that pensions be stripped from any elected or appointed official at any level of government convicted of any felony connected to his or her job. That requires amending the state constitution. And that means legislation must be passed in two consecutive sessions. So the current session must be the first. A second passage next year would put the change to a public referendum in November 2017 — and it would win easy approval.
Two-thirds of Long Islanders also want to ban political contributions from anyone with business before the government, another good step. And small majorities favor public campaign financing, as well as a ban on outside income for elected officials. Some leaders say the legislature benefits from the talents and experiences of a working farmer or pharmacist or doctor. There is some wisdom to that. Banning outside income might work better paired with a higher salary than the current $79,500. Term limits — that is, not making a career out of politics — is another way to stop people from accruing the enormous power that can lead to deceit.
Long Islanders have had enough of politics as usual, according to the poll. Approval ratings for local and national politicians are almost all under water. The highest pollers are those who are seen as outsiders, such as Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders and, yes, Michael Bloomberg.
It’s all become personal now. In recent years, many Long Islanders have come to see diminished futures for themselves and their families. And they are infuriated when public officials use their power to enrich themselves and their families, while so many others are falling behind.
Pointing to what’s been done in the past won’t cut it anymore. Promising to study the topic isn’t enough. Running into a last-minute hang-up and punting will not be tolerated.
Corruption stinks. It’s insidious. It must be eradicated.
The people have spoken.