For as long as most New Yorkers can remember, our state government has been a dark and corrupt place, a foreboding swamp swathed in a noxious miasma. Good ideas that made their way inside quickly became lost, bogged down, entangled, eventually sinking below the surface, never to emerge. The creatures that thrived in this dark realm were well adapted to life in the shadows, gorging on kickback schemes and poorly regulated campaign donations, blocking any effort to drain the fetor. Among the greatest monsters of them all was Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, who, having built an impregnable political machine on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, choked the dreams of popular governance without fear of consequence.
But then, last year, the unthinkable happened. A new champion waded into that dank marsh, and lo! he re-emerged, having slain two of its darkest denizens. When U.S. District Attorney Preet Bharara indicted, prosecuted, and successfully convicted Silver and House Majority Leader Dean Skelos for corruption, eliminating both of Cuomo’s partners in the troika that rules state government, it felt almost miraculous. The government in Albany had so long been a realm apart, unbound by law or democratic accountability, that many had stopped believing that anything could ever change. Suddenly, we dared to hope that as Skelos and Silver withered, shrieking, into dust, the curse would be lifted, the murk and stinking ooze would magically dissipate, and we would gaze about ourselves in wonder, as though waking from a nightmare, to see the sunshine falling bright across a clean and salutary political landscape.
As it turns out, it was a naïve and foolish fantasy. We learned that this past month, when Governor Andrew Cuomo emerged from negotiations with Skelos’s and Silver’s replacements and the three men in the room presented a hard-negotiated budget that included…absolutely nothing on ethics reform. Sure, maybe it wasn’t such a surprise. Cuomo is, after all, the guy who convened the Moreland Commission to Investigate Public Corruption — then meddled with its operation and then suddenly pulled the plug before it could so much as issue a report. But it is still deeply demoralizing to think that even in a year when both his partners in the cabal were convicted on federal corruption charges, just months after he’d promised decisive action on ethics reform in his State of the State address, at what is surely the high-water mark for demand for meaningful change — nothing. Forget it, Jake, it’s Albany.
If the point needed driving home, we could look to recent doings in Grendel’s lair, the assembly district in Lower Manhattan that for nearly forty years has been the seat of Silver’s power, where a special election will be held April 19 to replace the disgraced power broker. In February, the County Democratic Committee met to select their nominee; the jockeying for the nomination in the 65th, which is dominated by four Democratic clubs, was fierce. The Truman Democratic Club, Silver’s machine, was hell-bent on thwarting the candidacy of Paul Newell, a progressive reformer with a long history in the district who had been vocally critical of Silver at a time when few dared to, and who even had the gall to run against him in 2008. The United Democratic Organization was backing Yuh-Line Niou, who serves as chief of staff for Queens assemblyman Ron Kim.
Silver’s loyalists flirted with backing Niou against Newell, but there were some problems. While Niou narrowly met the residency requirement of having lived in the district for at least a year, some questioned whether she met the requirement of residing in New York for the past five years. Besides, the math didn’t add up. If team Silver wanted to stop Newell, they’d need to ally with the more powerful Lower East Side Democrats, which they did, throwing their weight behind Alice Cancel. On learning she wouldn’t get the backing from Silver’s people, Niou publicly quit the Democratic race, alleging a “flawed and undemocratic process.” Cancel, who owes her nomination to the support of Silver’s machine, refuses to say an ill word of Silver even now. “Whatever he did in his private life has nothing to do with our district,” she told the New York Times. “To me, it doesn’t matter.” This is the Democratic nominee.
Cancel will face challengers on April 19; though Niou dropped out of the Democratic race, she won the nomination of the Working Families Party and enjoys the support of much of the Democratic establishment, including Comptroller Scott Stringer, Senator Daniel Squadron, and a variety of unions. Less serious challenges come from Republican Lester Chang, who has Rudy Giuliani’s support, and Green Party candidate Dennis Levy, whose platform appears to be built primarily around the legalization of recreational marijuana.
But in an overwhelmingly Democratic district and an election in which the top of the ballot is the Democratic presidential primary, there’s a solid chance that voters will tick Cancel’s party line, if they vote in the special election at all. If that happens, Silver’s old seat will be held by someone he and his machine put in power.
On one level, this outcome doesn’t mean much. The winner will have to face a contested election all over again in the fall. But if Shelley Silver can reach back from the political grave to manipulate elections, if nominations are determined by backroom deals between power brokers, it doesn’t bode well for the effort to restore transparency and accountability to New York’s political process. If New York is ever going to drain the swamp of unaccountable politics, it’s going to take a lot more than an ambitious prosecutor collecting a few scalps. The hydra has many heads, and true democracy isn’t going to come to our government until voters demand it in a way that can’t be denied.