The ethics report on Vito Lopez's attacks on women and the Assembly's attempt to keep it quiet are only the latest in a series of revelations floating down the Hudson from Albany. All of them bad. All of them embarrassing.
There are many consequences from the barrage of scandal, but one of the most long lasting may be the extent to which our smartest, most energetic and creative citizens begin to shy away from service in state government.
Albany's Capitol building, physically impressive with its vaulted ceilings and broad marble stairways, is losing its luster as a place to make a difference.
It didn't used to be that way. Time was that Albany served at the leading edge of good government and innovation.
Long before there was a New Deal in Washington, Albany served as the nation's leading incubator for government programs.
Before there was OSHA, the federal agency that now ensures safety in the workplace, the New York Legislature — led by future Gov. Al Smith and lobbied by future Labor Secretary Frances Perkins — enacted a revolutionary workers compensation law. That was in 1913.
In the first decade of the 20th century, Gov. Charles Evans Hughes, a Republican, pushed through laws that limited campaign spending by corporations and required candidates to disclose contributions and spending. Radical ideas quickly copied by more than a dozen other states. All done over half a century before the post-Watergate political spending rules.
And a decade before the WPA opened vast acres of parks to the public, state government issued "A State Park Plan for New York" that advocated a unified system of parks with adequate government funding.
All of this stemmed from an understanding of the importance of government in the lives of all New Yorkers. There is a famous story of a meeting between the newly elected governor, Al Smith, and his political mentor and head of Tammany Hall, Silent Charlie Murphy. With state government, and all its spoils, firmly in their grasp, Murphy gave Smith some startling advice.
As retold by one of Albany's great chroniclers, Robert Caro:
"Shortly after the election, Murphy summoned [Smith] to his Long Island estate, Good Ground. Tammany would be asking him for many things, Tammany's lead said, but he had been thinking of what it meant to have a boy from the old neighborhood in the governor's chair. Should Tammany ever ask for anything Smith felt would stand in the way of becoming a great governor, all Smith had to do was tell him so and the request would be withdrawn."
All of that is long past.
Now, in addition to scandals, we read reports that some senior staffers to Gov. Andrew Cuomo — who has pushed a creative and activist agenda — are leaving public service. As reported, they feel that time in Albany is no longer time well spent. It is no longer the place to reinvent government.
The loss of Albany as an incubator of government innovation, as a place where ideas can be tested before they hit the complexities of the national stage, is a real loss. Government reforms, like off-Broadway plays or young baseball players need a chance to be tested, to be edited, to be fully formed before the challenges and dangers of a national stage. And Albany, running one of the largest and most diverse polities outside of Washington, is about the best place around to do that.
Yet this story can still have a happy ending. New York still has the greatest pool of talent and remains a brilliant microcosm of the world. Our leaders need only rededicate themselves to tackling big problems and supporting creative public servants who are eager to face that challenge. Given that setting, the talent will follow again, as it always has.