The recent wave of indictments of elected officials seems to encompass everybody. Democrats and Republicans (although not the Brooklyn Republicans, at least so far), members of all ethnic groups have been named indicted or are the subjects of investigation.
Vito Lopez, who recently said he would resign from his seat in the state Assembly and who by all accounts acted like a “Little Caesar” in his district, is only the most extreme example. More typical is the low-key politician who takes bribes in exchange for pushing a new housing development or other “perk.”
Of course, this is nothing new. For many decades, Tammany Hall ruled in Manhattan and many other parts of the city. Like the old mob, Tammany’s way of operating was “I do you a favor, you do me a favor.” There’s nothing wrong with this per se, unless that “favor” happens to be illegal.
In fact, one 19th century state legislator, George Washington Plunkitt, drew a line between “dishonest graft,” or graft that lines the pockets of one person exclusively for his own personal gain; and “honest graft,” in which the spoils to into the coffers of the party, campaign workers and others who are on the ballot for the same party.
Graft didn’t extend only to the legislature. In one highly suspicious episode, during the early 1940s, Abe Reles, a government witness in a mob case, supposedly leaped to his death from the Half Moon Hotel in Coney Island, where he was being held by police. Incredibly, all of the police officers who were assigned to guard him testified that they were asleep when Reles supposedly tried to escape. I personally find Lucky Luciano’s account of the incident – that the mob paid off these particular cops – more believable.
Until recently, many New Yorkers were led to believe that these types of shenanigans had come to an end with the rise of Reform-minded Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia in the 1930s and the fall of Carmine de Sapio, the last Tammany Hall boss, in the early 1960s. What happened?
In Brooklyn, part of the problem might have been that the Reform Democratic movement was never as strong here as it was in Manhattan. While in Manhattan, the Reform Democrats had more or less supplanted the Regular Democrats by the end of the 1960s, in Brooklyn, we still had figures like Meade Esposito and Mel Miller into the 1970s and ‘80s. Reformers were strong in Carroll Gardens Park Slope and similar areas, but in places like Canarsie and Midwood, Bed-Stuy and Brighton Beach, the Reform movement was weak indeed.
How do we get out of this mess? What happens to the politicians who have been investigated or have been forced to resign is a matter for the legal system to decide. But if you want good government, what I would say is to paraphrase the well-known 1960s saying attributed to Eldgridge Cleaver: “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.”
If you decry corrupt politicians, but aren’t registered to vote, saying, “They’re all thieves anyway,” then you’re part of the problem! If more people decided to be part of the solution – volunteering in political campaigns, going to community board meetings, joining political clubs, volunteering to be on the county committee – then those “rotten apples” would have less of an opportunity to dominate the process because they would be far outnumbered. If you want to do away with corruption, it’s not enough to walk the walk, you have to talk the talk. Volunteer for your local organization today!