Two downstate legislators, snagged last week in separate bribery scandals, may be the latest example of Albany’s corrupt pay-to-play culture.
But to the hundreds of community activists who gathered in Black Rock and across the state Sunday to call for election reform, Malcolm Smith and Eric Stevenson are just a part of the problem.
“We like to think of illegal corruption,” said R.J. Bradley-Ortiz, a community organizer with Citizen Action of New York. “But legal corruption exists. Too often, things happen that appall people, but they’re perfectly legal.”
Things such as special interest groups dumping piles of money to make sure legislation gets to – or doesn’t get to – the floors of the Capitol.
Or regular folks feeling their voices drowned out by the large sums of corporate cash that fuel statewide and national campaigns.
“It’s not fair, it’s not what we think of when we think of democracy in America, and we’re looking to do something about it,” said Bill Nowak, a community activist and labor organizer.
Nowak organized the Black Rock event with Citizen Action, which is in the midst of a campaign to push election finance reform on Albany’s reluctant Legislature.
Joined by leaders from local labor unions and small political parties, the group kicked off one of 100 similar programs to be held across the state this week.
The events are being held in conjunction with a highly publicized television advertising campaign calling on voters to push for real campaign finance reform with, among other changes, public financing of state elections.
And they’re not the only ones calling for a change.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, despite being a prolific fundraiser, has signaled a desire to tackle the issue soon, possibly in the upcoming session of the Legislature.
He is said to favor a system in which public funds would be provided to match small donations in an effort to limit the influence of big-money donors.
That heartens the activists and elected officials who say the change is long overdue.
“I believe we’re closer than we’ve ever been to getting fair elections in New York,” said Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes, D-Buffalo.
Peoples-Stokes was joined by Assemblyman Sean Ryan and state Sen. Timothy M. Kennedy, two other Buffalo Democrats who say they’re for campaign finance reform.
Ryan said the public financing of campaigns would be crucial to any real reform effort.
But he also called on local prosecutors to tackle the kinds of public corruption cases that give the same reputation to Erie and Niagara counties as the downstate fiascoes give to Albany.
“That made me sort of shrink a little bit,” Ryan said of the Albany scandals, which he called “pure corruption.”
The important message, he said, is being sent out at the grass-roots level, in Black Rock and other places throughout the state.
“We’re not going to give up. If we can’t get it this year, we’re going to keep pushing, and we’re going to get it next year. Change will come.”