I had one conversation with Shelly Silver. It was 2002. I’d just won a Democratic primary for the New York State Assembly in which the Speaker had backed my opponent. Meeting Mr. Silver at his office in lower Manhattan, I made an pitch for his support in the November general. The pitch fell short, and, two months later, so did my campaign. In retrospect, I dodged a bullet — much happier serving as mayor of New Rochelle than I would have been as a legislator in Albany.
Given this tenuous connection, I can’t really claim that the news of the Speaker’s arrest on corruption charges hit me in any personal way. But I still find the whole thing horribly upsetting.
Time to insert the usual caveats. In America, we are innocent until proven guilty. The Speaker has been accused, not convicted. He is entitled to his day in court. And it’s a good idea to suspend judgment on any subject until you’ve heard both sides. Maybe when everything is aired out, things won’t look so bad.
But, man, they sure look bad right now. If even a fraction of the U.S. Attorney’s claims are accurate, the Speaker constructed and concealed a web of business and legal relationships aimed at converting his public position into personal riches.
No comment is needed on the self-evident illegality, immorality, and general awfulness of the alleged arrangement – all that’s obvious. What concerns me even more is that episodes like this inevitably tarnish the whole enterprise of government. They feed a widespread perception that legislatures, city halls, and executive mansions are populated by crooks, that public action is routinely warped by the hidden motive of private gain, and that politicians as a breed are congenital liars.
When basic trust is gone, why bother voting? Why care about public debates? Why allow yourself to be inspired? It’ll only make the inevitable disappointment that much more painful.
So let me mount a brief, heartfelt defense of my chosen profession, during a week when it really needs one.
This is not a naive, blind defense; human failings are rampant in politics, like in every other field. At one time or another, I have been angry with, exasperated by, or directed fantasies of minor injury toward just about every politician I know personally. (Those feelings are surely mutual.)
But many are truly admirable in their character, intelligence, drive, and ability. And even the clunkers who may be dumb as posts, or timid as mice, or abrasive as sandpaper, are almost always in politics because they really believe in something. They toil away in mainly unglamorous positions, often making financial or family sacrifices, because they have a rough sense, sometimes justified, sometimes deluded, that they can make a positive contribution.
And the overwhelming majority, from the most talented to the least, are honest.
It’s admittedly hard to tell from the headlines, especially out of Albany, but political corruption of the cash-in-envelope variety is rare, probably rarer today than at any time in American history. (The perfectly legal, institutional corruption of the campaign finance system is another story.)
Does this somehow excuse or mitigate the instances of corruption that do exist? Not for a second. In fact, the broader damage done to public confidence makes these corrupt practices even more contemptible. Throw the book at ‘em.
My plea is simply this: leave some room for trust. It can be cautious, it can be provisional, it can be limited to those who have proven worthy. But, somehow, make a place for it. Trust is worth the risk of disappointment. And the collapse of trust is a much bigger threat to our Republic than a hundred sleazy pols on the take.
Noam Bramson is the Mayor of New Rochelle, New York.