Corruption, Overreaction, and Fact-Free Politics at the New York State Senate

by Troy M. Olson

Jay_Gould's_Private_Bowling_Alley_-_Opper_1882
Jay Gould, political cartoon retrieved at wikipedia.com and in the Public Domain.

In our great country, there are three main regions: New York City, Los Angeles, and the Midwest. Politically speaking, if you value vaguely responsive, effective, and non-corrupt governance, you’ll want to be somewhere in the Midwest, or as the “Agreeing Loudly” podcast now calls it—Central Earth.

I grew up in the Midwest, the part of the Midwest that in comparison to many other states, has relatively good governance and relatively active citizen populace. In my home state of Minnesota, voter turnout and citizen participation is routinely the highest or close to the highest in the United States. I have been spoiled.

In so many ways, I love the new city and state I am a resident of, but politics are not one of those reasons. As a (mostly) partisan Democrat this may come as a shock to some of you since I am now living in a deep blue state, having moved from a lighter blue state.

However, New York State and City politics have a long history of corruption, kickbacks, and shady business deals. The most notorious example being the subject of the above cartoon, Jay Gould. Gould was a first Gilded Age-era railroad developer and speculator who was so successful with his politico to corporate “grift machine” that he became the 9th richest American of all-time adjusted for inflation. 

Perhaps you’ll recall the “Tammany Hall” political ring portrayed in Martin Scorsese’s 2002 film “Gangs of New York.” While Gould did not feature in this fictional story inspired by true events, his political contact and professional “grift machine”-hack friend Boss Tweed, the head of the “Tammany Hall” political ring, was in the film. Perhaps you’ll recall him handing “vote Tammany” flyers out to the Irish immigrants as they were coming to New York City in droves during the 1840s to 1860s. Tweed’s main political opponent in the film is portrayed excellently by Daniel Day Lewis as William “Bill the Butcher” Cutting heading up the nativist faction of New York politics. Xenophobia or professional “grift machine” robber barons? Not very good options and probably not what Thomas Jefferson had in mind when he envisioned a nation of enlightened citizens. However, this story is repeating itself in New York politics today.

Like 19th century robber-baron Jay Gould, Boss Tweed, and the rest of the Tammany Hall hucksters before them, both New York state political parties have been on an impressive run of political corruption, even by Albany standards.  And trust me, the bar is low.

In the past year alone, the former State Assembly speaker, Sheldon Silver, has faced criminal prosecution and investigation for bribery and kickbacks. Silver, a 70-year old Democrat, is the epitome of why I believe the Democratic Party on a national level and in many state parties, is in big trouble.

To ensure they were not left out of the action and professional “grift” machine, Dean G. Skelos, the former State Senate Republican majority leader, has also faced criminal charges. This may be less a case of being left out and more just tradition at this point, as Skelos is the fifth consecutive majority leader to face criminal complaints or charges. This encompasses both major parties. To put this in context, think of the most crime ridden neighborhood you have ever seen or heard of. Go there with all of your biases and prejudices intact if you will, judge away, and pick out five people you are certain have faced criminal charges before. It’s incredibly likely that you will be wrong and at least one of them will have a clean record. For the sure thing: where you should have gone is Albany, specifically the office of the senate majority leader, to find your five criminals. Keep in mind these are the very people in the very positions of power who help decide what the criminal code will be, how high your taxes will be, what that tax revenue should be spent on, etc.

In New York State, the politics have become so corrupt and ineffectual, mirroring national trends, that a group of 40 New York millionaires petitioned Albany to have their taxes raised to address poverty and close New York’s glaring infrastructure gap (now up to a 35 billion dollar shortfall). That’s right New Yorkers, a group of millionaires has taken up the progressive mantle. Like I said, the bar is low.

New York political corruption is nothing new, and is itself just the injury, with major public policy problems being ignored or sidestepped being the further insult. However, this past week, the additional injury to the insult and the initial injury, was what the fact-free, hyperbolic, and faux-constitutional scholar New York GOP State Senate majority did to the innocent students at the CUNY (City University of New York) public university system.

To summarize what happened at the state senate, the majority GOP decided in their infinite wisdom that anti-semitist political groups and speech was so rampant in the CUNY system, which is the third largest public university system in the United States behind SUNY (State University of New York) and the California State University system, that they should be punished to the tune of 485 million dollar funding cuts. I won’t get into the specific allegations because one, it doesn’t matter as we’ll discuss below, and two, there is a huge gap between criticism of Israeli foreign policy and actual anti-semitism.

It is entirely possible, and quite certain, that there are some young activists on college campuses in the CUNY system who fall into the anti-semite category, but once again, that does not matter here. Political speech is protected under the First Amendment’s “freedom of speech” clause to the U.S. Constitution. In 2011’s Snyder v. Phelps the U.S. Supreme Court decided that the hate speech of the Westboro Baptist Church was constitutionally protected under the First Amendment in an 8 to 1 decision, confirming the historically strong protections for political speech that rises to the level of “hate speech” under the “freedom of speech” clause.

The New York GOP is not alone, if we take a look at the leading Presidential candidate in the “respectable conservative plot to cheat” – Ted Cruz, U.S. Senator, former Ventriloquist doll and lead singer in the 80’s band Stryper, you’ll see policy positions that advocate pulling money from American universities and even the United Nations for holding alleged anti-semitic viewpoints.

**********

Of course the real losers here are the kids and the public. Especially the poor and working poor trying to send first and second generation Americans through college. The CUNY system has one of the most diverse student bodies in the United States. With students from 208 countries, with black, white, and Hispanic undergraduate populations each comprising around a quarter or so of the student body, and Asian undergraduates making up 18 percent. Furthermore, 58 percent of the study body is female, and 28 percent is 25 and older.

All of this doesn’t matter to folks like Ted Cruz, or the New York GOP, out to advance their politically correct agenda toward…oh wait a minute? The GOP is being politically correct and insisting on financial penalties for noncompliance with new standards of opinion? Sounds pretty hypocritical coming from the same party that seems to think the First Amendment applies between citizens and other citizens.

This is ultimately why political correctness actually doesn’t exist, or rather, everyone practices it. The same party who has a candidate who “despises” so-called political correctness also has a candidate who wants to take it one step further, punishing the whole for the opinions and views of the very few.

Railing against a so-called “PC culture” is really just a stand-in for: “I disagree with you politically.” Nearly always coinciding with this viewpoint is an incorrect view of what the Freedom of Speech and Assembly clauses of the First Amendment entail.

If you’ll recall the recently cancelled Trump campaign event and subsequent crying foul of the protesters “infringing” on their First Amendment rights, you’ll see an obvious example of a GOP-standard bearer and followers with a wholly inaccurate legal view of how the Bill of Rights work. Trump and his followers are a walking and unfortunately, talking version of this classic Onion article.

The First Amendment is not a contract between citizens with other citizens. It is a contract being the citizens and Government. The Government cannot abridge your freedom of speech rights (and even this has reasonable restraints), but other American citizens can hold you accountable for whatever you say. They can exercise their First Amendment right to assemble and protest that speech, they can picket, call you the same names that you are calling other people, etc.

The First Amendment does not include the fictional right to not be held accountable for your speech by other citizens who hold those same rights.

Government, in this case the New York GOP majority in the state senate, using its power to punish the public for views held, no matter how egregious those views may be considered, is the very reason the First Amendment exists in the first place.

Innocent and relatively lower and middle income kids trying to get an education and improve their opportunities in life should not be short-changed by the actions of the few, and Government should not be punishing the people for views the majority party may disagree with. Any funding taken away by the NY state senate should be based on budgetary concerns, not by legislating citizen speech from your corrupt Albany hallways.

Clearly, the self-proclaimed “serious constitutional conservatives” do not understand our Constitution at all. If they did, a majority party wouldn’t be punishing an entire cohort of innocent young adults for the political views of the few.

3 thoughts on “Corruption, Overreaction, and Fact-Free Politics at the New York State Senate

  1. thoughtninja March 29, 2016 / 2:59 pm

    3 main regions of the country? I think Texas and Florida would disagree with you. As would the countless other high population areas that are not in New York City, Los Angeles or the Midwest. I know it’s not the central point of the story, but disregarding vast swaths of the country does not set a very good tone for the rest of the article.

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