From left, Democrats Justin Fairfax, Mark Herring and Ralph Northam in Richmond on Dec. 18, 2017. (Bob Brown/Richmond Times-Dispatch via AP) Paul Grondahl is the director of the New York State Writers Institute at the University at Albany and the author of political biographies of Theodore Roosevelt and Albany Mayor Erastus Corning 2nd.
ALBANY, N.Y — Residents of Richmond, we feel your pain. These disorienting early phases of distress you are experiencing — shock, anger and despondency — while hurtling through a still-unfolding maelstrom of political scandal in Virginia are familiar to us in Albany. After all, we live in the capital of the “most dysfunctional state government in the nation,” as commentators dubbed us , and the label stuck. It stung. At least at first.
But you, like us, will come through your dark night of the soul and learn to develop a thick scab over the wound. You will summon the courage to rip the bandage off quickly, put these fresh political scandals behind you and, eventually, rise above your political rogues.
Take comfort that there are more scandalous examples of political chicanery in Albany’s past than the shameful racist specter raised by Gov. Ralph Northam (D) and Attorney General Mark Herring (D) wearing blackface as young men and the sexual assault allegation against Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax (D). For instance, disgraced former New York governor Eliot Spitzer, better known as Client 9, had resigned in 2008 after it was revealed that he paid for the services of a high-price prostitution ring. Spitzer was replaced by David Paterson, and on his first full day as governor, Paterson held a bizarre news conference to acknowledge that he had several extramarital affairs, including one with a state employee. His wife, Michelle Paige Paterson, chimed in at the presser that she, too, had been unfaithful.
Our heads were spinning, which was akin to the sense of vertigo you surely felt when former GOP governor Robert McDonnell — whose sordid corruption scandal also engulfed his soon-to-be ex-wife Maureen — hit new levels of sleaze. Oh, but wait. We can go lower. Last year, former State Assembly speaker Sheldon Silver (D), one of New York’s most powerful politicians, was sentenced to seven years in prison after a jury found him guilty in a retrial of taking nearly $4 million in a kickback scheme that exposed Albany’s pay-to-play culture. Former Republican state Senate majority leader Dean G. Skelos was convicted on bribery and extortion charges brought in 2015. Joseph Percoco , a former top aide to Democratic Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, was found guilty last year of taking more than $300,000 in bribes from executives of two companies with state business.
In fact, your nadir can lead to a path of better governance. We’d recommend finding a crusader such as former U.S. attorney Preet Bharara, who helped scrape away the ethical rot in state government with a litany of corruption charges against New York state officials who epitomized what he called the "rancid culture” of Albany.
Take heart, Richmonders: Time heals all wounds, and years from now you may turn a pessimistic view of politics into economic opportunity. That’s the ultimate karmic payback for elected officials who so sadly forfeited the public trust. We make the most of Albany’s only major league sport: politics. We invite tourists to see where William M. “Boss” Tweed and his Tammany Hall cronies openly passed bags of cash to bribe legislators in the late 1800s and where a young reformer named Theodore Roosevelt “rose like a rocket” bent on cleaning up Albany.
Roosevelt wrote this in his diary in 1882, as a 23-year-old freshman assemblyman newly arrived in Albany: “A number of Republicans, including most of their leaders, are bad enough, but over half the Democrats, including almost all the City Irish, are vicious, stupid-looking scoundrels with apparently not a redeeming trait.”
Perhaps Richmond entrepreneurs will band together to try to establish a Museum of Political Corruption in your capital city, as a group of political junkies in Albany have spent the past several years doing. They are motivated by a description by John Gunther in his 1947 book “Inside U.S.A.” that described Albany as “a kind of political cloaca maxima, beside which Kansas City seemed almost pure.”
Feel free to borrow an idea bandied about in the Times Union newsroom: a deck of novelty playing cards featuring Albany’s political scoundrels. Between 2000 and 2015 , 28 state legislators left office due to criminal or ethical issues, and several more in the past four years have left under clouds of scandal ranging from allegations of sexual harassment to bribery.
Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist William Kennedy, an Albany native, subtitled his history of the city, “O Albany!” thus: “Improbable City of Political Wizards, Fearless Ethnics, Spectacular Aristocrats, Splendid Nobodies, and Underrated Scoundrels.”
That might be an apropos subtitle for a history of Richmond, as well. We tend to think our political scandals are unique. They are not.
Finally, dear Virginians, we are happy to loan you our state motto: Excelsior. It means “ever upward.” We say it with a heavy dose of irony. You will learn to do so, too.
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