Can things get any worse?

We expect that our politicians will behave ethically, morally and legally and we are inevitably disappointed when they do not. Now it’s Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos’ turn to face the firing squad. Ready, aim, fired! U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara says that Skelos used his authority to get favored treatment for his son, Adam. We all know that our kids are first on our list of priorities, but there are lines that are not to be crossed and if Skelos did cross the line — and Bharara says that he did — he is in big trouble; trouble as in jail time. If he did it, why did he do it? Because he thought that he could.

Once the father and son were arrested, there were immediate demands that Skelos step aside until the legal issues were resolved. I have not been a huge Skelos fan but there is an interesting issue here. Do we as a nation really believe in “innocent until proven guilty” or are we a bunch of witch hunters who call for the scalp of anyone who has simply been accused? Let us remember that Joe Bruno, once the powerful Senate Majority Leader, was forced to step aside to be eventually replaced by Skelos. Many years and millions of dollars later, Bruno was found not guilty of his transgressions by a jury of his peers. We should think about that.

You can’t begin to count the number of newspapers that made that exact rush to judgment, calling for Skelos to “step aside” on their editorial pages. Since Speaker Silver was forced to step down, it was inevitable that Skelos would also be asked to walk the plank. The problem for the Republicans is that they only control the Senate by the scantiest of majorities. The Democrats are having a field day demanding the head of Skelos and you can’t blame them for doing so. In New York, politics is a contact sport and the participants always play with a deflated ball. In other words, they cheat — either honestly or dishonestly.

The real story here is the state of the Republican Party in New York. We are entering into a competitive election cycle. In presidential election years, the Democrats come out in large numbers and the Senate, which the Republicans control by just a few votes, will likely fall into Democratic hands. Skelos’ troubles will drag on and only make things worse. His own number two, Thomas Libous, is already under indictment.

Interestingly, Governor Andrew Cuomo was loath to enter the fight over Skelos. As Attorney General, Cuomo was proud of his indictments of politicians. Now as governor, he invokes the Legislature as a separate branch of government and covers himself by saying that if the accusations against Skelos prove true, he would find them disturbing. We all know that Cuomo has been largely responsible for keeping the Republicans in control of the Senate even if he is a Democrat himself. He did it in part, after promising not to, by allowing Republicans to continue gerrymandering their own districts in their favor. That’s interesting if one considers the increasing parade of Republicans who are putting lots of distance between themselves and Skelos. For example, popular Columbia County Congressman Chris Gibson made it quite clear that he thought Skelos should step down.

Control of the Senate in New York state is a huge thing. Issues such as New York City rent control laws and an increased minimum wage separate Republicans and Democrats. You can bet that the business interests that back the Republicans are not pleased by the Skelos mess. Since they’re the people who write the campaign checks, they have a lot of influence. Can things get worse in the legislative zoo? You bet they can. We keep hearing that Bharara has a long list of people who he is looking at.

Originally published in the Legislative Gazette, 5/12/15

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