WNYC's Bob Hennelly is an award-winning investigative journalist. While at WNYC he has reported on a wide gamut of major public policy questions ranging from immigration and homeland security to power outages and utility mergers.
DNC Dispatch: NY Delegation Awash in Albany Intrigue
Monday, September 03, 2012
As New York's Democratic delegates and party leaders settle in for a week of party celebration in Charlotte, the group is operating against a backdrop of distress as the sexual harassment scandal involving Assemblyman Vito Lopez grew to include Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, who is hosting the delegation this week.
Silver's payment of $103,000 to settle sexual harassment allegations brought against Lopez by two former staffers without referring the case to the state's ethics panel is likely to come under the scrutiny of the state's brand new Joint Committee on Public Ethics, signed into law by Governor Andrew Cuomo.
That's a new wrinkle for Albany, where in the past the legislature washed its own ethical dirty laundry and it has the professional politicians a little on edge. There's also concern that JCOPE's composition is too closely aligned with Cuomo.
Silver, who hit Lopez with heavy sanctions, has subsequently conceded concealing the settlement was not in the public interest. Not spared in this leadership trainwreck is Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, whose office has disclosed that it counseled Assembly lawyers during the settlement process.
Lopez has denied any wrongdoing and there were press reports he resigned from his party leadership post as Chair of the Brooklyn Democratic Party. But the state Democratic Committee website lists Lopez as being in command and control, and county regulars say Lopez has only pledged not to run again, meaning that he could still preside over his successor's selection after the national convention.
Lopez's fall due to something so lurid as a sex scandal is a strange kind of groundhog day for the weary Democrats of Kings County. Just a few years ago, they suffered through the drawn out legal tribulations of former party boss and Assemblyman Clarence Norman who was ultimately convicted on several corruption charges. In Charlotte, the weariness remained.
For Brooklyn Democratic District leader Lori Citron Knipel, the Lopez scandal coming such a short time after the Norman fiasco just makes engaging the public into local party politics all that much harder. She says it has actually eroded public participation in politics.
"You don't have the kind of voter enthusiasm that you had 20 years, or even 10 years ago," she said. "People's interest is diminishing. We have less and less people showing up at the polls. People get disgusted."
But some party regulars in Charlotte insisted that Silver would emerge unscathed from the inquiry.
"Shelly asked for them to look into it," said Assemblyman Denny Farrell. "He acknowledged he made a mistake."
Others thought the state could take some pride that it now had a more independent panel to review the actions of state officials.
"Transparency is important for all elected officials," said Charlie King, whose term as Executive Director of the New York State Democratic Party ends in four days. "We have to make sure we have accountability in Albany."
And many wanted to move past the conversation altogether.
"Look no one has battled more with Vito Lopez more than I have," said Congresswoman Nydia Velázquez. "There are some investigations going on so let's wait and see."
Valazquez was at a loss for why the political press was fixated on the Lopez-Silver story with the potential for national economic calamity just month out if Congress fails to deal with the debt ceiling. She says if hundreds of billions of dollars in automatic government spending cuts occur as part of the debt ceiling deal between the President and House Republicans, "his will take our economy into another deep recession. We have to be very cautious."
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo is limiting his appearance to a cameo role at a breakfast on Thursday, the last day of the convention. He has repeatedly made it clear the job he is focused on is reviving New York state and not the ins and outs of party building.
In some ways that mirrors the frequent criticism that President Obama is too aloof compared with previous Democratic leaders. One long-time Democratic House member waxed nostalgic in a Charlotte lobby for the halcyon Clinton era. "I liked the way the Clintons paid attention to party building," the member sighed. With Cuomo's role so minimal, that leaves the mantle of Democratic Party leadership here in Charlotte to the embattled Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver.