Is New York the Most Corrupt State in the Nation?

(Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

In the wake of New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman resigning amid allegations of intimate partner violence and abuse of power, Jeet Heer took the Empire State to task in a column for The New Republicarguing that the famously progressive, liberal state is, in reality, a bastion of political corruption.

Heer isn’t entirely wrong, as most New Yorkers who pay attention to state politics know. Schneiderman is far from the first AG to resign in disgrace — remember Eliot Spitzer, a.k.a. Client 9? — and he isn’t even the first state official to be disgraced this year. (That would be Brooklyn Assemblywoman Pamela Harris, indicted on fraud and corruption charges in January — though she waited three months and resigned in April, while Schneiderman stepped down after a mere three hours.)

Sexual harassment and abuse is omnipresent in Albany. Lawmakers’ efforts to address the problem have ranged from well-intentioned to outright absurd. Years ago, I asked Assemblywoman Deborah Glick about it and she said, “There are no longer issues. We’ve changed the rules: The interns are no longer allowed to be at any reception where alcohol is served; they are not allowed to travel with members [of the Legislature].” The change happened because a lawmaker from Buffalo preyed on an intern to whom he gave a ride home, but the legislature made rules circumscribing the behavior of the interns.

A young female staffer of a lawmaker once told me, in an attempt to explain how great her boss was, that he didn’t make her go up to Albany. She didn’t have to worry about being harassed, or worse. This year, the four men who effectively control the state — Governor Andrew Cuomo, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, and Sen. Jeff Klein — hammered out a new sexual harassment policy as part of the state budget.

Weeks before they started on this policy, Klein was publicly accused of assaulting a former staffer. Flanagan, who has an appointee on the state’s impotent ethics commission known as JCOPE, made public statements about what a good guy his buddy Klein is, apparently caring not at all at how that would poison any potential investigation. On top of all that, the four men studiously ignored a group of women who had left work in Albany due to harassment and assault and wanted to help shape a policy that might actually be effective — in fact, they even refused to allow their highest-ranking female colleague to join them.

But is New York, as Heer claims, the most corrupt state in the entire nation? It’s a statement, he says, that “has been fact-checked”:

Or at least it was in 2016, when PolitiFact found that the media had ‘chronicled more than 30 corruption cases in the past decade,’ more than any other state. In fact, ‘The data shows New York State has led the nation in public corruption for decades.’

A key factor Heer elides over in this is the involvement of “the media.” Judging how corrupt a state capitol is based on how much corruption is exposed is flawed in a similar way that concluding that rape has become more prevalent when there’s a spike in reported rapes. You’re not considering how much people might be getting away with when there aren’t reports coming out.

This is why having robust local news outlets is so crucial to government reform. Without well-resourced reporters digging around and rooting out wrongdoing, powerful people can get away with anything. And while New York is no exception when it comes to the general gutting of local news enterprises happening today, it does still have a number of strong publications across the state, many of whom have diligent reporters covering our statehouse. It’s worth looking at the state of local news in states that seem relatively uncorrupt.

Heer disagrees. In his piece, he lamented that “the local media is so focused on national events that it ignores what’s happening in the state (especially upstate).” This may be true of outlets based in New York City, but it’s certainly not true of all of the outlets across New York State — especially the ones upstate. It’s true, in my experience, that city-based outlets don’t think city residents are interested in news about Albany. But maybe that’s because the city’s major news sources haven’t done a good enough job getting city residents to understand just how much control Albany has over their lives, or how bad the culture up there is.

National media could also do more to hold state governments accountable. For instance, the notorious Nxivm cult was based in Albany, and several victims of the cult’s predation sought help from state authorities and other state entities, to no avail. Top headlines have focused on arrested actress Allison Mack. No one seems to be digging into why New York, a supposed haven for women’s rights, did nothing to help people who reached out in desperate need.

Heer makes a number of good points backed up by clear data. State politics is still very male-dominated all over the country, and New York is no exception: women comprise a little more than a quarter of our state lawmakers, but more than half the state population. He notes a report by POLITICO New York — an outlet with a significant presence at the state capitol — that found more than 1,000 people filed sexual harassment complaints in state government entities since 2012, and another by the Associated Press showing lawmakers have spent more than $10 million in taxpayer funds over the last nine years to settle 88 cases of sexual harassment, discrimination and related cases in state government, “almost all of which were brought by women reporting groping, come-ons and demeaning treatment.”

His claim that New York is effectively a one-party state is a little murky, considered Cuomo allowed gerrymandering years ago that gave Republicans a lot more power than they previously have, and also enabled a breakaway group of pseudo-Democrats known as the Independent Democratic Conference, who worked with Republicans instead. But he’s correct about the influence of money and the fact that the government has come to function in a way that facilitates corruption. As he wrote, “many key decisions, such as the shape of the state budget, are made in backroom deals between a few power players.” And he’s correct to be frustrated that we don’t seem to have any Bella Abzugs in state government right now — anyone willing to take a stand and force change. It’s worth considering whether the political system we’re operating within has been augmented to make those people unelectable, or unable to get re-elected if they fight with their colleagues who prefer the status quo.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. A robust local media is important, but so is a well-informed and activated electorate. In New York, there are local-level committees that represent the Democratic Party and have a surprising amount of power, selecting local judicial candidates and special election nominees.

Cuomo is the de facto head of New York’s Democratic Party, and the people currently in power within these committees are about as reform-minded as he is, which is to say, not really at all, beyond paying lip-service to seduce progressives who might not be paying close enough attention. But that doesn’t have to be the case. In Brooklyn, at least half the available committee positions are left unfilled. A group of young people have been diligently working for years to gain positions within the local committee and try to push for New York’s Democrats to be more ethical, with initiatives like Rep Your Block, encouraging people who want a better system to get involved and work for it. Their progress may be slow, but it’s steady — and the more people get involved, the faster and steadier it will be. We get the government we settle for.