Civic Engagement is the Only Cure for Political Corruption

Civic Engagement is the Only Cure for Political Corruption

As I look at the mess that has become New York politics, I am reminded of Thomas Jefferson. When asked by a local Philadelphian outside of the 1787 Constitutional Convention about what they created inside the secret conclave, Thomas Jefferson quipped, “a republic, if you can keep it.”

Over the past decade we have watched with great frequency as politician after politician has been convicted of a wide range of abuses of the public’s trust. These folks range from the most powerful in federal and state government to local power brokers looking to cash in on their political relationships. More than a dozen high ranking state and local officials have been caught in the cross hairs of federal and state authorities.

This week on Long Island, Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano [the state’s largest county] and his wife along with Supervisor John Venditto, Town of Oyster Bay were arrested by federal agents on a 13 count indictment, which included a pay to play kickback scheme.

The aforementioned alleged crimes have become so normalized in our culture that the voters have become numb to the headlines. As a student of politics I wonder if this is the way it has always been or is it the technology that has shined a light on the misdeeds of those operating in the shadows.

Perhaps the English Christian historian and former Member of Parliament, Sir John Dalberg-Acton was correct when he famously stated that “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

Given the rate at which the federal government has been rounding up these pols, it is not a stretch to think more arrests are on the horizon. While the government is doing their part to go after those who make up the foundation of this culture of corruption – it is our job to find solutions.

There are many good-government groups who have pushed for ethics and campaign finance reform in New York; however their efforts have been thwarted by the culture of the status quo. Many reformers believe that seizing on a possible vote for a New York Constitutional Convention (e.g., vote slated for November 7, 2017) will force the state legislature’s hand to pass meaningful reforms. In theory it makes sense, but the one variable that will dilute this purist approach is politics. The same people who are impotent on the issue of reforms are the same people who will set the rules and ultimately run the convention. As the recently published “Patronage, Waste and Favoritism, a Dark History of Constitutional Conventions” details, you only have to look at the mess that was the 1967 convention to see the political boondoggle at work. The best approach is to engage the citizenry and get them mobilized to act (e.g., vote).

The people of New York State have amended their constitution over 200 times through a public referendum. It costs must less than the estimated price tag of $320 million for another convention. Legislation is only half the equation, the other half is to proactively change the way we campaign for public office. That will require citizen engagement.

The prosecutors in their statements after arresting a pol almost always includes a not so subtle hint that we must change the way our political system does business. The message is not only directed at our representatives, but to New Yorkers themselves. The common response of many people is, “politicians are all crooked and I have to focus on surviving and providing for my family – this mess doesn’t directly affect me.” Wrong.

When a pol takes a payoff from someone in return for an illegal government backed loan guarantee for their business and that person defaults – the taxpayers are responsible for that loan. The net result is taxes go up to pay the loan back and you have less money in your pocket.

The only way to truly reform the system is to take back our government and bring back the citizen legislator. This can be done through a number of reforms that includes:

  • extending a single term from two years to four years;
  • setting legislative term limits;
  • increasing legislator’s pay;
  • setting up a bi-partisan state ethics review board staffed by former judges;
  • allowing the State Comptroller to audit all government contracts; and
  • explore the possibility of publicly financed elections.

Keeping in mind that the judicial system is not immune to corruption, we must reform the way our judges are selected and eliminate the stronghold that political party bosses have on the system. This is not FanDuel or DraftKings, judges are not fantasy sports players who can be bought and traded by non-elected power brokers. This is a serious problem and the people must address it.

Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders were not wrong when they famously stated “this is a rigged system.” It’s only rigged if we continue our apathy towards the political system. Regardless of where you stand on the ideological pendulum, we can all agree we live in the greatest country in the world and our vote is the most powerful tool we have to change the status quo.

The ball is in our court. November is the election and January starts the state’s legislative session, so don’t let this important opportunity to reform our way of life pass by forever.

 

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Looking Ahead to the Post-Election Landscape

Looking Ahead to the Post-Election Landscape

We can all be thankful that it’s less than three weeks until Election Day. Anyone who says he or she is undecided on a presidential choice may not be telling the truth, as I’ve had a hard time finding a single person who is absolutely unsure. When friends tell me they don’t like Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump, I have to remind them that many elections are decided by who you dislike the least. That was the case in Carter vs. Reagan and Bush vs. Gore.

The real question that both major political parties must face, after Election Day, is what lessons they’ve learned. The Republicans have the bigger headaches, but that doesn’t leave out the Democrats, who must do some reflecting of their own.

The best way to guess what the Republican Party will look like after November is to read mythology and learn about the Hydra. According to the Greeks, it was a multi-headed monster with poisonous breath. Come Nov. 9, the Republicans will become a three-headed modern version of the Hydra.

One of the heads will represent the Trump movement. This angry bunch, said to number as many as 12 million people, will no doubt be disappointed with the results and Trump’s likely claim that the election was “rigged.” They will be angry because their hopes that Trump would elevate them to a new level will have been dashed. They will also learn in a very short time that they have been manipulated by one of the greatest salesmen since P.T. Barnum.

The second head will be the mainstream Republican Party. Once again, it will have ignored the lessons of the Mitt Romney campaign, which ignored Hispanics and other minorities, which contributed to Romney’s defeat. Study after study will arrive at the same conclusions. The Republican Party is destined to be out of the White House for many years to come unless it opens up its tent to Americans of every background. For members of the so-called old guard, this is a bitter lesson, because for over a century the party has been like a country club, admitting only a limited number of members.

The third Republican Hydra head will be the hard-line conservatives, who in some states include groups like the Ku Klux Klan and other supremacy groups. They have devoured the Tea Party, but they have no real strength other than their 60 members of the House of Representatives, whose goal has been to stop everything President Obama has tried to do and shut down the government.

Besides ignoring past recommendations of inclusion in the party, the Republicans have to figure out how to limit the number of candidates who want to stand on stage at party presidential debates. When 16 people are given the opportunity to be on television, nothing will stop them from the competition. The success of Trump is a lesson in how easy it was for a TV personality to steal the party while it was sound asleep. It sounds undemocratic, but there have to be party rules that limit the field of candidates to a modest number.

It remains to be seen whether the Republicans will lose control of the Senate, but let’s assume for now that the Democrats will gain slim control of that chamber. Just about everyone in the country thinks Congress is inept and incapable of accomplishing anything. How many polls do we have to read showing that people thinks they’re all a bunch of useless partisans? Many an incumbent will get re-elected, but that isn’t a vote of confidence. It’s just a lucky accident.

The Democratic Party, too, has its work cut out for it. The Bernie Sanders devotees aren’t going away, and many of them will decide in the next four years whether to stick with the party. If Clinton wins this election, she’ll face a serious opponent in 2020, and many in her base may abandon her. When you look around the country, it’s easy to see that the party isn’t overloaded with rising stars.

My warning to both parties is that if we’re treated to more gridlock and government shutdowns, many of them will be booted out of office come 2018. No matter who wins what office on Election Day, this year’s results won’t be a vote of confidence in anyone.

 

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The Sad Legacy of Donald Trump

The Sad Legacy of Donald Trump

Over the past 50 years the political world has been exposed to many names, some of which have left a long term impression and others that have faded into obscurity. Carter, Dukakis, Clinton, Dole, Gore, McCain, Romney, Palin and the Bushes are just a few.

Some will be remembered for their campaigns or their post-campaign activities. Others have faded into the mist never to be in the public spotlight again.

When the final 2016 votes have been counted, it is fair to ask whether Donald Trump, win or lose, will have left his mark on the political sands of time and what exactly that mark was.

Whether you are a Democrat, Republican, independent or whatever your political persuasion, you will acknowledge that the candidacy of Donald Trump will be remembered for quite some time to come.

It is stunning that Trump has built a coalition of over 12 million people.

Many of those people are sincerely desirous of change in any form. Others want change for all the wrong reasons.

Should Trump lose, as it seems inevitable, many of them will continue to feel left out of the political system with no place to go for consolation as neither political party is the answer to their prayers.

Everybody has the right to run for public office, whether rich or poor.

Quite a few rich men have made the plunge into politics.

Michael Bloomberg was able to parlay his wealth into three successful terms as mayor of the City of New York.

Lewis Lehrman, the heir to the Rite Aid fortune, was the Republican candidate for governor, but somehow all his money did not translate into victory.

Ronald Lauder, the heir to the cosmetics fortune, bankrolled the campaign to force term limits for New York City Council members.

Donald Trump, with little thought, decided that his money and media visibility would propel him into the White House.

So less than a month from now what will be the legacy of Donald Trump?  I doubt it will be a good one.

To start with he has incited hatred of a massive number of hard working people, just because they practice their own religion.

We live in a world where we are surrounded by terrorists, both homegrown and living in other parts of the world. Does that mean all Muslims are bad? His derogatory comments about women have brought shame on him.

His embrace of the Klux Klux Klan types is a throwback to some of the worst times in our history.

School personnel around the country have reported a sharp increase in bullying and no doubt, statements by Trump at his campaign events have fueled that type of thinking.

His appeal to the minority community has been insulting and derogatory.

Revelations about his past “locker room” statements  don’t just hurt his image, they are a stain on the political system.

Attacking a judge with a Hispanic heritage, who was born in this country, has incited numerous incidents where other minorities have been maligned.

The society we live in won’t be the same after Election Day and it will take us a long period of time to recover, if that ever happens.

The whispers of intolerance and hate are not like passing clouds.

They linger and linger for long periods of time and it could take years for the Trump legacy to be erased.

The two-party system, that I respect and have been a part of, will be in shambles for the next two election cycles.

The Republican Party will be forced into exile to figure out how they can create a more open and inclusive party.

The right-wing elements of the party will have been reduced to nothingness.

The Democratic Party will have to do its own soul searching. And sadly,the image of America and its  political process, will be badly bruised by the Trump legacy.

 

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Trump: A Modern Day Disaster

By any measure, the 2016 election will go down in history as the most complex and challenging contest in my long history. I have served at various levels of government for over 30 years and have always set a high standard for any candidate that I support. Over time, I have switched my voting between Democrats and Republicans based on the person and how I think they will perform in office.

By every measure, the candidacy of Donald J. Trump would be a joke if it were not so serious. There is a long history around the world of television, radio and even sports celebrities seeking to capitalize on their name recognition and seek some type of public office. Both Ronald Reagan and George Murphy were movie actors who started their political careers in public office. Murphy flamed out quickly, but Reagan went on to the White House after his role as governor.

Some of my friends tell me that they admire the success of Donald Trump in the business world. Clearly, none of them has ever had any dealings with Mr. Trump or they might think otherwise. I have met more than a handful of people who have done business with Trump and either been stiffed or asked to take an unfair discount. The bankruptcies of Trump have left many investors holding an empty bag.

Even if you choose to ignore his business history, let’s just put his statements and thinking out in the daylight. If you had an old college roommate or former coworker who made nasty remarks about immigrants, women, minorities, veterans and everybody else, sooner or later you would begin avoiding that person because of the discomfort of the relationship.

If your crazy uncle said it once in a while at Thanksgiving dinner, you might accept it, but you wouldn’t elect him president of the United States.

I understand the Trump appeal to a large segment of the population that dislikes government and feels that nobody cares about their concerns. An unemployed steel worker or a coal miner in a dying industry has every reason to think that Trump is going to change their standard of living, but that isn’t ever going to happen. Donald Trump is the old-time traveling salesman who goes from town to town making promises he will never keep.

On the other side of the coin there is Hillary Clinton. She has her share of detractors, but is far and away more competent to serve in the White House. Some talk about the history of the Clintons in negatives. I recall the presidency of Bill Clinton as a great success and my many Republican friends tell me the same. Hillary Clinton has enjoyed a lifetime of public service. Donald Trump has taken care of Donald Trump.

I don’t view the choice between the two candidates as the lesser of two evils. I view Trump as the evil and Mrs. Clinton as a person who can do the job at this most crucial time.

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Looking Toward the Future, We Should Learn from the Past

Looking Toward the Future, We Should Learn from the Past

Like all national elections, the 2016 campaign has highlighted the fact that there are a large number of Americans who are angry at their government and are desperately seeking an agent of change. Many of them have every right to be unhappy with Washington, because we have been saddled with a broken political system for many years.

No matter which party is in control of Congress, there is always some faction that blocks progress. When the Democrats controlled both the House and the Senate, they had many opportunities to make major changes in the country, but the liberal faction of the party consistently got in the way. Obamacare may in time prove to be a success, but it was the only meaningful law that came out of a one-party Congress.

Once Congress was controlled by the Republican Party, the right wing decided that President Obama must not have any legacy when he leaves office. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s pledge to “make this president a one-term president” wasn’t fulfilled, but McConnell, with the help of the Tea Party faction in the House, stalled anything that would have enriched the lives of people in need.

So it’s no surprise that the public gives Congress such low favorable ratings, because it deserves them. The real question is, how do we deal with the groups that have legitimate gripes about their government? I’m not referring to the bigots and the racists who have embraced the candidacy of Donald Trump. Their idea of “making America great again” is turning back the clock to segregation, outright discrimination and marginalizing ethnic groups. We’ve come a long way since the 1960s, and no one should be allowed to bring back those ugly times.

There are many Americans who can’t find jobs, through no fault of their own. Every new technology that you read about results in some group of people losing their jobs. The need for the country to clean up the environment causes coal miners in West Virginia, Kentucky and Pennsylvania to lose their jobs, with virtually no possibility of being trained for new ones. Politicians like Trump can promise to bring back coal and steel jobs, but in his heart he knows that those jobs are never returning.

At the risk of being nostalgic, I’d like to bring back some of the old days as a way to jump-start our economy. In 1935, America was hurting. In the aftermath of the Great Depression, millions of people were out of work. While our country today is much healthier, with booming industries, we need to get the poorer areas of the nation working again. A simpler solution would be to copy the old Works Progress Administration.

The WPA was the brainchild of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. According to Wikipedia, in the 1930s it was the most aggressive government agency, hiring mostly unskilled men to carry out public works projects, the construction of buildings and roads. Many of today’s post offices contain murals painted by out-of-work artists. Almost every city or town in America had a park, bridge or school built using federal funds. Workers were paid the prevailing wage, and at least it gave them something that politicians strive for — hope.

The WPA created 8.5 million jobs and gave unskilled workers across the country the chance to feel wanted. Many years later, President Jimmy Carter got money for programs that allowed police departments to hire civilian workers to relieve uniformed employees from desk duties. It wasn’t as big as the WPA, but it helped people get a paycheck and gave them the chance to be productive. I’m not in favor of big handouts, but there are a lot of people out there who are ready to help rebuild our sagging infrastructure.

I’ve heard all of the arguments about government giveaways, but this Congress hasn’t figured out a way to appropriate one extra dollar for rebuilding our country. Taking a look back at the past could result in a brighter future for many Americans.

 

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