Former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver could go to prison for decades on corruption charges — which you’d think puts a damper on his political prospects.
But if he lives a long life, he can take heart. Last week, the good people of Bridgeport, Conn., re-elected a mayor who served seven years in prison for bribes he secured the last time he was mayor. It would be nice to spin it as a story of forgiveness. But the truth may be darker: Voters respect power — and high-level corruption is evidence of power. The remedy for concentrated power is free markets — which is why powerful politicians don’t like them.
The remedy for concentrated power is free markets — which is why powerful politicians don’t like them.
At Silver’s federal criminal trial, prosecutors spent last week establishing the obvious: He was an important man. Robert Taub, the Columbia cancer doctor who referred patients to Silver’s law firm in exchange for state research funding, said so five years ago. He did business with Silver, he wrote in a 2010 e-mail, because “he is the most powerful man in New York State.”
Silver, along with the governor and the Senate leader, was one of the three men in charge — and, through obfuscation and deal-making, could award millions in grant money without anyone noticing.
Or did people notice? Silver’s alleged corruption was an open secret — and a politician who can amass power for himself can amass power for them.
To wit: Silver’s voters care desperately about rent regulation, especially after wealthier people started moving to the Lower East Side. Silver controlled the state’s rent regulation. He also used his power to secure “affordable” housing where voters wanted it — and to make sure it wasn’t built where they didn’t want it.
Same for Bridgeport Mayor Joe Ganim. Why put him back in office after he stole from voters? Well, they said, he was just better at providing jobs and housing.
Silver’s alleged corruption was an open secret — and a politician who can amass power for himself can amass power for them.
It’s no coincidence that during his first mayoral gig, Ganim was a big fan of eminent domain for economic development: taking property from a few owners, and trying to spread the supposed benefits of government-created jobs to more than a few other people.
If you’re powerful enough to take someone’s home, it stands to reason that you’re powerful enough to reap some benefits on the side. But if you’re desperate for a retail job at a new government-subsidized mall, so what?
That’s also why powerful business forces don’t serve as a check on powerful politicians. Real-estate interests in New York state likely could have turned Silver and his state Senate counterpart, Dean Skelos, in to prosecutors years ago. Silver used his power allegedly to shake down a huge apartment-rental company. Skelos is going on trial soon for allegedly doing the same with commercial real-estate interests.
But many of the city’s real-estate interests don’t prefer honest politics. They’re happy to have someone who will do favors.
You see the same thing at play with the guy who’s trying to become a powerful politician: Mayor de Blasio. As a New York Times report detailed last week, developers are showering hundreds of thousands of dollars on his shadow “non-political” action committee.
But because de Blasio’s dirty-dealings power base is fragile — he couldn’t even get the horses banned — the developers control de Blasio, rather than the other way around.
The mayor hasn’t garnered the voters’ respect, because they can see who works for whom. Why do you think the city hasn’t used its rezoning power to limit the super-tall towers whose shadows increasingly darken Central Park?
New York could sure use a free market in housing and office buildings, not just with rent regulations, but with any special favor, from tax breaks to the right to do noisy work after hours.
What’s the remedy for systemic political corruption?
Free markets. New York could sure use a free market in housing and office buildings, not just with rent regulations, but with any special favor, from tax breaks to the right to do noisy work after hours. Such “exceptions” to the rules — which are the rule here — beget corruption.
But don’t expect such a change. The people in charge like things the way they are. We just live here (or work here).