The Legislator(s) Who Sold Out New York

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This post originally appeared at The Huffington Post.

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 30:  Former New York Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver leaves a federal court in Lower Manhattan on November 30, 2015 in New York City. A jury found Silver guilty on all seven charges against him in a federal corruption trial that lasted five-weeks. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Former New York Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver leaves a federal court in Lower Manhattan on November 30, 2015 in New York City. A jury found Silver guilty on all seven charges against him in a federal corruption trial that lasted five weeks. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

There’s an old corruption joke that you’ll find variations of in India, in Nigeria, in China — I’ve heard versions from everywhere.

A bureaucrat from China visits an Indian counterpart and sees the beautiful home and asks, “how did you get this beautiful house?” The Indian functionary answers, “Can you see that bridge?” “Yes” “10 percent,” says the bureaucrat, smugly. Then, a decade later, the Indian counterpart returns the visit to find an even more beautiful home “How did you get this big and astonishing home?” He asks. The Chinese bureaucrat answers, “Do you see that bridge?” “No,” says the Indian visitor. “10 percent” says the Chinese politician.

The joke is that the worst corruption leaves the country with nothing.

The Long Dark Shadows of Plutocracy
If you look down into Manhattan from the Southern edge of Central Park, there’s a building, One Fifty Seven, that rises up out off the street, a big, ugly, empty, luxury condominium. Its a building that wouldn’t exist without tax subsidies from New York State. It is a building that wouldn’t exist without Sheldon Silver. Sheldon Silver is going to prison and we are left with a constant reminder, the shadow from One Fifty Seven of the cost of corruption. Silver presented himself as a tenant’s advocate, but in reality — as we learned at his trial — he was making hundreds of thousands of dollars from Glenwood Management and then pushing for tax breaks for Glenwood Management. The New Yorkers he was supposed to represent were left out in the cold, fighting for affordable housing. One Fifty Seven is just one of the many buildings that Sheldon Silver got a percent of.

But its bigger than the buildings. If you look at a map of New York, without gerrymandered districts, you see a Democratic State — there are twice as many Democrats as Republicans. You see a state of citizens who want full funding for public education, who want public transportation, who want a fair tax policy. But if you overlay it with a map of gerrymandered districts, you see power in New York: Republicans have a veto over all legislation because of how districts are drawn. That’s Sheldon Silver’s legacy, too. His refusal to push for fair redistricting is incoherent except as a gift to his donors, to his secret funders and as a self-protective measure guarding his own desire for power, an unholy alliance insuring that each house will protect its own majority and hands-off the other house. If Silver had been representing the Lower East Side — or even the interests of this party and the voters it is supposed to represent — instead of himself and his desire for money and power, the entire state would look different. This is the legacy of Sheldon Silver and the cost of corruption.

The eventual cost of corruption — as the joke tells us — is not just that you build things you shouldn’t, but you stop building things altogether. And the real cost of corruption in New York State — and part of Shelly’s legacy — is the things we didn’t do. With a Democratic Senate and without tax giveaways to developers, we could have been building the best infrastructure in the country and educating all our kids. Instead, the state is literally falling apart.

We should thank Preet Bharara for taking on one of the most powerful, untouchable people in New York — and then realize it is our job, as citizens, to take on other politicians doing the same thing, unless we want our legacy to stay in Silver’s shadow.

Silver’s conviction places the entire “business as usual” system at Andrew Cuomo’s feet. If he doesn’t act now, this broken infrastructure and corrupt politics is his, not Sheldon Silver’s. It is Andrew Cuomo who plays the partisan split between the Assembly and Senate like a master violinist to insure truly progressive policies that would cost his campaign contributors don’t pass and unaffordable luxury buildings get built and Andrew Cuomo who led the charge against fair redistricting and Andrew Cuomo who has taken more money from Glenwood Management than Silver ever did. In the wake of this trial, Glenwood Management money should be treated as toxic, corrupt and corrupting.

And we, as a public, have to rise up and reject Glenwood, demand public financing of elections and support challengers to anyone, Democratic or Republican, who is working for their donors and private clients, not the public.

The views expressed in this post are the author’s alone, and presented here to offer a variety of perspectives to our readers.

Zephyr Teachout is a scholar of constitutional law who teaches at the Fordham University School of Law. She ran for governor of New York in 2014. She was national director of the Sunlight Foundation and director of online organizing for Howard Dean’s campaign. Follow her on Twitter: @ZephyrTeachout.

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