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The 2016 Al Smith Dinner


Public trust in Washington began diminishing under President Lyndon Johnson over the course of the 1964 presidential election and the escalation of war in Vietnam. Watergate ushered in a new era of distrust in government in the United States as the country’s top elected office was compromised. By 1974, public trust in government dipped below 40 percent for the first time since such records had been kept. 

As with other political corruption scandals, new ethics laws were introduced in response to Watergate, in part to solve problems, in part to restore public trust. President Richard Nixon resigned in 1974. That year, federal campaign finance regulations were enacted and the Federal Elections Commission was established to ensure compliance, along with several other “good government” amendments throughout the 1970s. As side effects, the newly enacted legislation contributed to further erosion of public trust through lengthy investigations and loopholes allowing unlimited amounts of “soft money” to flow into elections through political parties as opposed to particular candidates.

Running on the campaign message of “I will not lie to you,” Jimmy Carter was elected president in 1976, with personal and professional character front and center. Though public trust in government under President Carter would continue shrinking below 30 percent amid rising inflation, rising oil prices due to the energy crisis of 1979, and the Iran hostage crisis which lasted from 1979 until 1981.

Like Carter, candidates for public office have run on their integrity, ethical and moral grounds, and promises to “clean up” government for as long as time. Too often, it doesn’t turn out to be that simple. There is perhaps no better example of this than Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who came into office as Governor in 2011 amid Albany corruption and ethics scandals having been Attorney General, where he helped root out some of that corruption. Nearly six years later, state government has continued to see a stream of corruption arrests and ethics scandals.This year, Cuomo, a second-term Democrat, campaigned for a Democratic takeover of the state Senate, saying that ethics reform is his top priority for next year in Albany.

Corruption and ethics in government remain a focal point for candidates at all levels of government as elected officials are accused of and convicted for rewarding their major donors and key allies with political appointments, government contracts, and other payoffs. Politicians are not seen as trustworthy -- in New York and elsewhere. In fact, there is a crisis of confidence in the United States not only in government, but in other institutions: public schools, the criminal justice system, big business, and news media, among others.

This year’s presidential election has seen loud and passionate conversation about political and moral corruption, lies, misdeeds, and a system “rigged” in a variety of ways. Polls show the public sick of it all, and disillusioned by key pillars of democratic society. Donald Trump, now President-elect, ran an outsider campaign largely aimed at tearing down corrupt and ineffective government, speaking to populist frustrations to out-of-touch, crooked, and gridlocked elected officials and bodies.

Here in New York, the issue of government corruption is especially acute, not only according to the ever-growing rap sheet of the state’s elected officials, but also according to New Yorkers. Poll numbers from July show 87 percent of registered voters in New York believe corruption is a serious problem in state government, while only 38 percent believed Gov. Cuomo and the Legislature will take steps to improve ethics in state government this year. Despite all this, many New Yorkers support the same politicians they see as enabling the problem, or at least ignoring it.

“In the face of well-publicized incidents of corruption, mostly the people will lose trust in the institutions and withdraw from the political system,” said Doug Muzzio, professor of public affairs at Baruch College. Voter turnout in New York has been slumping for decades, though it is unclear how much of that trend has to do with political corruption and a lack of faith in government.

“New Yorkers have particularly good reason to look down upon their elected officials because they’ve lived in a state of total dysfunction and corruption involving nearly every level of government for the last six or seven years,” said Muzzio.

This year alone, New Yorkers have witnessed several cases of corruption affecting state and city officials.

The most high-profile were the separate convictions of former state Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, a Democrat, and former state Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, a Republican, on federal corruption charges. The two abused their public posts for private gain, as dozens of other New York officials have done in recent years.

In September, Gov. Cuomo saw nine of his associates and donors arrested on federal corruption charges -- a group that includes two former close aides, Joseph Percoco and Todd Howe; a now-former senior state official, Alain Kaloyeros, who Cuomo often praised; and six others involved in state economic development projects. The charges included bid-rigging for major state contracts involved in those projects, alleged to have been tailored to major Cuomo campaign donors. The governor was not charged and Cuomo maintains that he had no knowledge of the alleged malfeasance.

In October, Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano, a Republican, Mangano’s wife, and a Long Island town supervisor were arrested and charged with trading favors and contracts for perks. These arrests are the most recent New York corruption news to hit newspapers and airwaves, sending further message to New Yorkers that their public servants are not prioritizing public service.

Even short of arrests, news of investigations into potential wrongdoing can erode public trust and expose unethical or questionable behavior by government officials, even if illegality is not found.

There are multiple ongoing investigations into the behavior of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, a Democrat, and his allies. No charges have been brought against de Blasio or any of his close aides or allies, and the mayor has said they acted legally in their fundraising practices and did not do government favors for donors.

Still, a majority of New Yorkers and several government watchdog groups believe there was unethical, if not illegal, behavior. Even as the city’s Campaign Finance Board cleared de Blasio and his affiliated political nonprofit, the Campaign for One New York, of campaign finance violations, the board said the nonprofit’s fundraising “plainly raises serious policy and perception issues,” in an official statement.

At a national level, both major party presidential candidates, Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump, had ethical and legal questions swirling around them as they competed to lead the country. The details of issues surrounding Clinton’s private email server and her family foundation accepting donations from foreign governments when she was Secretary of State are well-publicized. As are questions about Trump’s foundation and business dealings, and allegations of sexual misconduct.

For many good reasons, there is a frightening trend in public polling that shows an erosion of confidence in major institutions among Americans.

Confidence in key U.S. institutions -- political, financial, religious, and more -- has remained relatively low over the last decade, according to Gallup polling data going back to 2006, and most recently recorded in June.

According to those survey results, Americans have particularly lost confidence in financial institutions, organized religion, news media, and the U.S. Congress. 

Congress has the distinction of being the only institution that currently inspires little or no confidence in a majority of Americans, according to the national poll from June. Partisan gridlock on Capitol Hill and obstruction by the Republican-controlled legislature with Democratic President Barack Obama in office has undoubtedly contributed to this standing, with Congress last on public confidence among the 14 institutions tested, which also included the presidency, the Supreme Court, religious organizations, organized labor, the medical system, and the banks.

Of the 14 institutions tested by Gallup, the only ones where more than half of survey participants responded with “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence are the military, small businesses, and the police. In New York City, job approval for the police is also high, though approval has diminished in recent years and is divided by racial and generational differences.

“Americans clearly lack confidence in the institutions that affect their daily lives,” writes Jim Norman, a polling analyst with Gallup. As Norman points out, the lack of confidence in institutions extends into many facets of life: “the schools responsible for educating the nation’s children; the houses of worship that are expected to provide spiritual guidance; the banks that are suppose to protect American earnings; the U.S. Congress elected to represent the nation’s interests; and the news media that claims it exists to keep them informed.”

While each institutional sector has its own reasons for earning a lack of confidence -- the financial meltdown, sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, partisan gridlock in D.C., etc. -- Norman says “there are reasons that reach beyond any individual institution.”

Professor Muzzio said that, coincidentally, he had recently lectured his undergraduate students on the Gallup poll showing diminishing confidence in institutions. “There’s been a profound decline in trust among major institutions and Americans simply don’t know how government works, creating a crisis for maintaining a civic society,” said Muzzio.

While there are a litany of factors contributing to this loss of confidence, political corruption at all levels of government has contributed to this decline in institutional trust, especially at the state and local level in New York. However, a general lack of confidence in institutions and the mounting evidence of corruption by elected officials has not prevented voters in New York from supporting the very politicians that they find to be associated with the problems of corruption as opposed to offering solutions.

There does not appear to be New York-focused polling data on confidence in institutions, so it is unclear how New Yorkers fit into Gallup’s results. But some local polling results shows New Yorkers’ views on their state and local governments and the New York City police department.

In a statewide Quinnipiac poll conducted in July among registered voters, nearly nine out of ten New Yorkers, 87 percent, said that corruption is a serious problem in state government. That includes a majority in all subgroups -- Democrats, Republicans, and independents; young and old; men and women; upstaters, suburbanites, and city dwellers.

While ethics reform is widely considered an important issue in New York, only 38 percent of poll respondents said they believed the governor and state Legislature would take steps to improve ethics in state government this year, according to the poll. Democrats and city residents have the most confidence in their state-level officials on this question, with 50 and 46 percent who expect there to be steps taken this year, respectively.

Furthermore, nearly half of those polled, 48 percent, said they view Gov. Andrew Cuomo as part of the problem with ethics in government, including one-third of Democrats and city dwellers and two-thirds of Republicans and upstate residents. Two-thirds of poll participants said they disapproved of the way the state Legislature is handling its job, including a majority among Democrats, Republicans, and independents.

Despite the cross-party consensus among New Yorkers suggesting a lack of confidence in their state lawmakers to address the serious issue of ethics and corruption in government, New Yorkers still show a general willingness to support individual elected officials that make up the system they universally lack confidence in, even when they associate them with the problem.

For instance, Gov. Cuomo’s job approval rests at 50 percent in the July Quinnipiac poll, and respondents gave their individual state senators and Assembly members average approval ratings of 52 and 43 percent, respectively. Many state legislators are easily re-elected every two years, facing minimal, if any competition.

A Siena College poll released in October also has Cuomo’s favorability rating at 50 percent among likely voters in New York -- virtually unchanged despite the federal corruption charges filed against nine individuals involved in his inner circle or economic development programs.

“There is a disconnect between knowledge of a problem and action,” said Muzzio. “The voters say that it is corrupt and a significant problem and they don’t believe they’ll do anything to address it; this brings up a question if the voters really think it’s a serious problem.”

Further, nearly half of all Quinnipiac poll respondents, 48 percent, said that New York State elected officials are incapable of ending political corruption in Albany and should all be voted out of office so that new officials can start with a clean slate. It is a striking lack of confidence across New York, showing that New Yorkers do not believe their current crop of state government elected officials will take the necessary steps to improve their ethics and root out corruption.

In comparison to Democrats, Republicans in New York consistently view corruption as a more serious issue. New York Republicans, who hold much less power at the state level, are more dissatisfied with elected officials, less expecting of their efforts to address ethics reform, and more willing to see all state level elected officials voted out of office.

In New York City, there is a similar phenomenon regarding local government. According to an August Quinnipiac poll of registered voters in New York City, only 28 percent of participants approve of the way Mayor Bill de Blasio is handling political corruption. Amid months of negative headlines around investigations into de Blasio’s behavior, 53 percent of participants said that de Blasio does favors for developers who make contributions to campaigns in which he is involved.

More than half of respondents find this behavior unethical, if not illegal, and a vast majority of New Yorkers, 84 percent, believe political corruption in New York City is a serious problem. Despite all of this, 42 percent of registered voters in New York City, and 53 percent of Democrats, said de Blasio deserves to be reelected. Nearly half of poll respondents, 49 percent, said de Blasio is honest and trustworthy despite the federal, state, and local investigations into the behavior of the mayor and his allies. Insisting that he and his team acted legally, de Blasio has said that investigations are an unfortunate part of public life these days.

The police department is also an area of concern for corruption in New York City, according to New Yorkers.

The Quinnipiac poll from August provides more information about views of police corruption among city residents. In line with the national survey data displaying confidence in the police as a trustworthy institution, 60 percent of New York City voters polled said they approve of the way the NYPD is doing its job. Though there is a caveat to this when you divide respondents into subgroups revealing racial and generational divides: 80 percent of survey participants who self-identify as white approve of the NYPD’s job, while only 32 percent of participants who self-identify as black approve, while 58 percent disapprove. As for age, job disapproval for the NYPD is highest among young people, ages 18 to 34, while job approval is highest among those 65 and older.

High compared to other institutions, confidence in police in the U.S. -- which in June was at 52 percent -- is nevertheless at its lowest since 1993, according to Gallup. In New York City, job approval for now-retired Police Commissioner Bill Bratton was at 57 percent in August, the same as it was in March 2014 when Bratton had just taken the position, according to Quinnipiac. Bratton’s job approval dipped to its lowest level, 44 percent, in December 2014 before rebounding to its previous level. The dip coincided with a grand jury deciding not to indict an officer whose chokehold led to Eric Garner’s death and weeks of protests that followed, as well as two officers being killed in their patrol car.

While Bratton’s job approval increased 6 percentage points among white respondents over his tenure, his approval rating dropped 20 percentage points, from 61 to 41 percent, among black respondents by August 2016.

Despite relatively high confidence marks in the NYPD, police corruption is seen as a serious problem by 72 percent of New York City voters polled by Quinnipiac in August. But, a majority of respondents, 54 percent, view police corruption as just a few police commanders doing favors for well-connected people, while 36 percent believe police corruption is more widespread. Skepticism of widespread police corruption is highest among young people and African-Americans, according to polls.

Part of the disconnects shown by poll numbers on ethics reform and the popularity of incumbents likely has something to do with the fact that many people don’t have government ethics as one of their most pressing concerns. People are focused on jobs, health, safety, housing, education, and other such issues.

Voters also know their local representatives better, can be more forgiving toward people they see producing for their community, and may have a sense of a corrupt or ineffective collective government.

The split can be seen, for example, with Rep. Charles Rangel, who has represented residents in New York’s 13th Congressional District in northern Manhattan since the 1970s. As a first-term representative and member of the Judiciary Committee, Rangel -- a Harlem-born Democrat -- participated in the investigation that led to the downfall of President Richard Nixon. Throughout his tenure, Rangel has become a local legend, and known for bringing funds and other investment into his underprivileged district.

Rangel, who is retiring this year, secured hundreds of millions of dollars in federal investment into his district, including, by way of a few examples: $300 million in federal, state and city-funded loans and grants for business development, jobs, educational and health programs, and social services in Harlem, East Harlem, Washington Heights and Inwood as part of the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone; $2.5 million in federal funding for computerizing archives of Harlem's world-renowned Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture; and $9 million in federal funding for a major rehabilitation of the 650-unit Taino Towers complex in East Harlem.

“When people vote for their local representatives at the state and federal level, they are interested in results: are the schools good? Is the economy improving, or at least not stagnate? The benefits that you gain as a resident outweigh any official’s bad behavior,” said Muzzio.

So in November 2010 -- when a House panel found Rangel guilty of 11 counts of ethical violations for violating House rules or federal laws by soliciting donations from people with business before his committee to fund a Harlem university center named in his honor, not paying taxes on a home in the Dominican Republic, improperly using a rent-stabilized apartment in New York as a campaign office, and not properly disclosing more than $600,000 in income and assets; as reported in the Washington Post -- it’s not surprising that Rangel was simultaneously re-elected to a 21st term in office despite the ethics violations and accompanying censure.

Rangel has since won two more elections before he announced his retirement. In a May 2014 New York Times/NY1/Siena College poll conducted among Democrats in the 13th district during a primary competition with challenger Adriano Espaillat -- who is now set to replace Rangel after a third try at the seat -- Rangel had 52 percent favorability among his constituents. In line with other polling results, respondents in that Siena poll said the candidate attribute “understands needs and problems of people like me” was more important in their decision about who to support than honesty and trustworthiness.

“For most voters, ethics is a minor issue; it’s an abstraction,” said Muzzio. “When you have to worry about issues like having jobs, providing a good education, decreasing crime, you could expect ethics to be less important than more immediate issues affecting voters personally.”

Despite the evidence that voters are more concerned with other issues than ethics reform, according to Gov. Cuomo, restoring integrity in government will be a national issue after this year’s elections.

“All this cynicism, all this distrust, all these questions about the justice system and this and that is going to linger,” Cuomo said at an October 30 campaign rally on Long Island for Democratic State Senator George Latimer, according to State of Politics.

Trust in government -- and other institutions -- is something New Yorkers and all Americans, including the new President, will have to reckon with after Election Day and into 2017 and beyond.

“Every relationship comes down to trust. There are questions about the integrity of government,” Cuomo said Oct. 30, linking the need for reform to the “overall lack of confidence in government voters have expressed.”

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by William Fowler for Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.



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