Once again the light is shining brightly on the Albany scene… and not in a good way. The last chapter of the saga of convicted Dean Skelos (former Senate Majority Leader) and convicted Shelly Silver (former Assembly Speaker) is about to be written as they are soon to be sentenced for their crimes and misdeeds as leaders of the State Legislature. In the meantime more unsavory information has come to light about the former speaker’s personal life and ways in which those relationships compromised the public trust. Undoubtedly both men will be sentenced to prison and maybe for a considerable length of time. The specter of these two legislative leaders being led off to incarceration is a profoundly sad day for New York State government.
For me personally it is enormously painful to watch. For the public it is more than a little disillusioning.
I served with both Dean and Shelly and consider them both to be friends. Shelly and I shared a close political relationship for all the 28 years that I served in the Assembly until 2006. My sense of unreality at what was going on just beyond the sight of their colleagues and just beneath the surface has shocked me. If I were still in the Assembly, would I have known? And If I had known what would I have said or done?
The trial began last week. It is officially referenced as “The United States vs. Sheldon Silver.” It is really about the culture of government in many state capitols… but in this case Albany. The facts in this trial involve the conduct of the former Speaker of the Assembly who for 20 years was arguably the most powerful state elected official with the exception of the governor. The prosecution is focusing on Silver’s alleged illegal activities which resulted in his personal enrichment. It is attempting to show that Silver broke the law and the public trust by taking actions not based on good policy but rather based on enhancing his own power and fortune.
And next week the corruption trial of former State Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos will begin. These two trials will shed considerable light on how laws are made and will peel back the onion layers of backroom deal making in Albany. The result will surely leave a bad taste.
But it is much more complicated than that.
I served in the State Assembly for 28 years until 2006. At the end I was privileged to be near the pinnacle of power in that body as chairman of an important committee and one of the most senior members. I also worked closely with Mr. Silver on a range of legislative issues. Whatever else may be said and alleged of Sheldon Silver, I can attest that he committed his time and intellect to the job. He devoted more hours than any other public official that I came into contact with. And at least in my experience he sought out what he thought was the right public policy on an array issues important to the lives of ordinary New Yorkers. Did he betray the public trust in some of his private back room dealings? I do not know. Is he guilty of pocketing millions of dollars because of influence peddling? A jury will have to decide that.
Despite allegations that the Cuomo administration compromised the governor’s own corruption watchdog panel and despite the fact that Cuomo’s opponent in the primary has been interviewing non-stop — thanks to an unusually interested press in a longshot candidate — that opponent has still retained her title of just that, a longshot.
Still, there’s no doubt at this point that Zephyr Teachout is gaining momentum. Cuomo recently attempted, unsuccessfully, to have her tossed off the ballot over allegations she didn’t live in New York for the past five years. Meanwhile, the move to keep her from running may have backfired. Along with pointing out that Teachout, a Fordham law professor, was an underdog candidate, it also alerted New Yorkers to a fact many weren’t aware of previously, which was that there was even a primary election at all.
During a recent interview over the phone, Teachout shared her thoughts with Town & Village on why voters are starting to pay attention to this race. She also spoke about her ideas on what can be done to keep New York affordable for tenants (including small businesses) and why developers like Extell are part of the problem. (The interview has been edited for length.)
Why do you think people are finally noticing your campaign? Do you think it’s just the Moreland Commission?
There’s a latent, deep frustration about our economy, about how New York State has the most segregated schools; it’s the most unequal state. It’s a closed all-boys club in Albany. It’s supposed to be an egalitarian state. I’m anti-corruption. Extell gives $100,000 in campaign donations — and this is Extell of the poor door fame — and Extell is getting subsidies that other New York businesses aren’t. What I think people are starting to see is that Extell is not just a developer. They’re spending so much money on developing political power and connections. One thing about me. You’ll always know where I stand. Andrew Cuomo is hiding from the issues. He’s hiding from a debate right now. He’s scared of bringing more attention to the campaign. I won’t tell you that the reason people are (paying attention) is any one thing, but Moreland is pretty shocking. I think he’s governing like an ad man. He’s putting on a lot of ads, but he doesn’t engage reporters. We like to say that Andrew Cuomo is my biggest campaign donor. That (Cuomo has taken me to court) has perked up a lot of reporters’ ears.
As a political outsider, how do you feel about political alliances, like the recent announcement that the Independent Democratic Conference was breaking away from the Republicans, and the expectation of a Democrat-led Senate as a result?
Not to toot my own horn, but Andrew Cuomo only started fighting for a Democratic Senate when I entered the race. I entered the race at the end of May and within three days Cuomo was making all kinds of concessions that he hadn’t agreed to in years. He could have made a Democratic Senate years ago if he vetoed the redrawn districts, which had been a campaign promise. There’s no excuse for not having a Democratic Senate in New York. The reason we don’t is Andrew Cuomo. If it was in Democrat control we’d be a lot better off in terms of affordable housing.
As a political outsider, how would you handle the actual politics of governing? Dealing with the various alliances in order to get things accomplished?
I think the job is leadership. You’re not going to win every fight. My vision of leadership is hiring great people and respecting people who work for the state.
In Stuyvesant Town/Peter Cooper Village, everyone’s rent-stabilized, so there’s concern over the fact that the Rent Stabilization Law is coming up for renewal in 2015. What would you do to strengthen it?
I’m very familiar with Stuyvesant Town. I used to live near there on East 7th Street and I would go up there to go swimming at Asser Levy. (On Rent Stabilization Law), there is precisely a role for the city to play. We need to repeal the Urstadt Law. At a minimum the city should be free to directly do things. It’s a crisis of people living in expensive housing. It’s a crisis for our economy.
In ST/PCV, some people pay affordable rents, while others pay double for the same apartments. A big concern is all the legal ways owners can raise rents from major capital improvements (MCIs), to individual apartment improvements (IAIs) to vacancy bonuses.
Rent stabilization is still one of the best sources of housing for low income people in the city. We have to make sure affordable means affordable, not unaffordable.
Zephyr Teachout with running mate Tim Wu, candidate for lieutenant governor (Photo courtesy of campaign)
It seems that more and more small businesses are being priced out of their locations and being replaced with chain stores. What do you think of the idea of rent regulation for commercial tenants?
We have two different visions. One is commercial rent control for small businesses. The other is making sure big box stores aren’t getting an unfair advantage. We have to make sure our lending system is accessible to entrepreneurs who need it. You have to have a blend of strategies. We also have to make sure for retail diversity that there’s a range of minority owned businesses.
What made you write a book about corruption?
I began writing it years ago. I began writing in 2008 because the New York Supreme Court’s vision of corruption was narrow and cramped. They said it was only about illegal bribery, so it wasn’t about Extell. If you’re giving $100,000 in donations and getting tens of millions in subsidies, it is a violation of democratic principles. I think the core of it is if you want to be a public servant, you have to serve the public and not just serve yourself.
When you meet with voters, what are their top concerns?
Housing is one of the top concerns. People just don’t have the money to meet the basics. Another concern is people feel there aren’t enough (services) for people with psychiatric disabilities, but the more mainstream (concern) is housing. Upstate it’s property taxes and schools are central. With schools, it’s high stakes testing and over-crowding.
What would you do to alleviate classroom crowding?
There needs to be smaller classes, no more than 20 in a class. I used to be a special ed teacher’s aide, and you can’t give each child the attention they need when there are 33 kids in a classroom. There needs to be art and music for every child. They’re not extras. They’re essentials. We should be the best public school system in the country.
What’s your opinion of charter schools?
Charters have a role, but a very small role. Eva Moskowitz’s assault on education is not what charters are supposed to do. I am opposed to colocations and I don’t think charter schools should get money that was intended for our public schools.
What would you do to create jobs?
I’m a traditional Democrat. One (idea) is investing in the infrastructure, in the MTA, in transit. Upstate it’s in renewable energy. All of these create jobs in the short term and enable jobs in the long term, and affordable higher education.
If elected, what is your first priority?
My first priority is taking on the old boys’ network that allows corruption to continue. The school system is unequal and there’s immigration. Andrew Cuomo has a running mate who’s anti-immigrant. Every child at the border should see New York as a sanctuary.