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OpinionOpEd

We can blame ourselves for Albany's demise

Assemblyman Sheldon Silver sits in his new seat

Assemblyman Sheldon Silver sits in his new seat for the vote of his replacement as Speaker of the Assembly Tuesday afternoon Feb. 3, 2015 at the Capitol in Albany. Photo Credit: Albany Times Union / Skip Dickstein

A standing ovation and raucous applause were reported to have erupted in the closed-door session last month when every New York State Assembly Democrat except one -- Charles Barron of Brooklyn -- re-elected Sheldon Silver as speaker of the chamber. The Party of Al Smith, FDR and Mario Cuomo elected as its leader a man who was under a cloud of federal investigation.

Silver had not been Assembly speaker for the past two decades by accident, and he wasn't gifted the office by party elders. He was put into the position by those individuals that we, the citizens of New York, trust with power in state government.

Only days before the vote for speaker, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said he was considering trading a pay raise to the same elected officials for their votes on ethics legislation -- reforms that would force lawmakers to behave how they should even if there's no law in place. While lawmakers held the reforms hostage in exchange for a pay increase, U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara entered the debate with a pair of handcuffs and showed the best way to bring about change in the state Capitol.

Cuomo finally confronted ethics reform in an address at NYU Law School on Monday. The reforms proposed regarding legislative pay, limiting outside employment and transparency in outside income should be taken into serious consideration. But we should also consider why the governor waited until now to wholeheartedly push for the reforms.

It loses impact when the knight in shining armor rides into the village after its been plundered. If Cuomo wanted to "look every New Yorker in the eye and say we have a system to deter, detect and punish," as he said in his speech, why didn't he do it before votes were cast in November?

In an election where ethics reform could and should have been confronted as he and state lawmakers faced voters at the ballot box, Cuomo instead spent months dodging his opponents, dodging the issues and, in effect, dodging the voters. In the single debate he agreed to have with three challengers, the sitting governor of New York spoke for less than 12 minutes.

New Yorkers had to have sensed something wasn't right with the picture they were seeing. And then they voted to keep him in Albany anyway.

"When so many of their leaders can be bought for a few thousand dollars," Bharara said the day after the arrest of Silver on fraud and bribery charges, New Yorkers "should think about getting angry."

The would-be sheriff of New York -- presenting the impression of being the last righteous public official in the state -- is right. But what he left out of his inspiring remarks when he unveiled his case against Silver was exactly who our anger should be directed toward. Let me fill in the blank: Ourselves.

Blaming "Albany" has produced little change. It is far easier to blame the system than it is to look inward at the decisions we have made that have left us with corrupt and/or inept leadership in a state synonymous in so many other regards with excellence.

We must, instead, look at our own role in electing those who would help to make our state Capitol a national embarrassment. Through the chaotic noise about what should change and what should remain the same, the best reform policy will inevitably start with us and whom we send to Albany. Or, more importantly, who we send home.

James Coll is an adjunct professor of American and constitutional history at Nassau Community College and the founder of ChangeNYS.org.

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