New York politics rocked by upheavals

Eric Massa
A House ethics panel is reviewing a potential sexual harrassment complaint against Rep. Eric Massa by a male staffer.David Duprey / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

The Empire State has a lot to recommend it — Broadway shows, Niagara Falls, and baseball's World Series champions, the New York Yankees. But politics? As the locals would say, Fuhgeddaboudit.

Colorful, ethnic, tribal, the New York political scene is much like the Big Apple itself, a bit rough around the edges. But the political upheaval taking place in the state now has shocked even hardened New Yorkers and given disillusioned voters across the nation more reason to lose faith in their leaders.

Just in the past week:

— Democratic Gov. David Paterson dropped his re-election bid because of evidence he may have pressed the girlfriend of his closest top aide to drop charges of domestic violence against the aide. That bombshell, along with accusations that Paterson broke ethics laws when he sought World Series tickets and then lied about his intention to pay for them, has spurred a drumbeat of calls for his resignation.

— Rep. Charles Rangel, the state's most influential member of Congress, relinquished his post as chairman of the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee after the ethics committee found that the Harlem Democrat had broken House rules on accepting gifts.

— Rep. Eric Massa, a freshman Democrat from upstate New York, planned to step down next week after announcing he would not seek re-election because of health reasons. A House ethics panel is reviewing a potential sexual harrassment complaint against Massa by a male staffer.

— Then there's Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, whom Paterson appointed to fill the rest of Hillary Rodham Clinton's term after President Barack Obama named Clinton secretary of state. Gillibrand is widely viewed as weak and nearly drew a primary challenge from former Democratic Tennessee Rep. Harold Ford, who opted out of the race but wrote a column in The New York Times Monday blasting party leaders for protecting Gillibrand and trying to "bully" him.

—As if she weren't bruised enough, Gillibrand received the political equivalent of a Bronx cheer from New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who said Wednesday that either Ford or Mort Zuckerman could have beaten her and that voters would be "better off" with more choices. Zuckerman, a real estate mogul and publisher of the New York Daily News, considered entering the Senate race as a Republican but announced this week he would not run.

'Bad apples'
"Everywhere you look, there's an arrogance about New York politics," said Joseph Mercurio, a political strategist who has worked for both Republicans and Democrats. "Like the rest of the country, most elected officials here are honorable and hardworking and loved by their electorate. But New York has also bred a lot of bad apples."

New York was once home to political giants, including presidents Teddy and Franklin Delano Roosevelt and former Democratic Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Hillary Rodham Clinton moved to New York to win a Senate seat, as did Robert F. Kennedy, the late president's brother.

Now the state is better known for producing people such as state Sen. Hiram Monseratte, a Bronx Democrat expelled last month after being convicted on domestic violence charges that included dragging his girlfriend and cutting her face with a broken bottle.

The most eye-popping New York political scandal took place exactly two years ago, when Gov. Eliot Spitzer resigned in disgrace after being linked to a high-priced prostitution ring. His departure elevated Paterson, Spitzer's hand-picked candidate for lieutenant governor, who seemed in over his head from the start.

Paterson botched his highest-profile act as governor, courting Caroline Kennedy, Robert's niece, to replace Clinton in the Senate before abruptly picking Gillibrand instead.

Gillibrand, Paterson, Massa and Rangel are all Democrats, adding to the national party's headaches as it braces for potentially historic losses in the November midterm elections. Democrats will have an uphill fight to defend Massa's seat in a conservative upstate region, while Rangel's troubles are an embarrassment to Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who promised "the most ethical Congress in history" in 2006 after Democrats retook control.

GOP woes
New York Republicans, however, haven't done much so far to capitalize on their rivals' woes, even with so many targets of opportunity. The GOP has an exceedingly thin bench in the state with its few big names — notably former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and former Gov. George Pataki — opting not to run for office this year.

Andrew Cuomo, the popular and well-financed attorney general, will almost certainly be the Democratic nominee to replace Paterson in the governor's race. Former Rep. Rick Lazio, the likely Republican nominee, lost badly to Clinton in the 2000 Senate race and is given little chance against Cuomo, a political leviathan and the son of former Gov. Mario Cuomo.

The GOP also lost two New York House seats in special elections last year in conservative districts that had long elected Republicans.

Nelson Warfield, a GOP strategist who has worked in many New York campaigns, said prospects for Republicans were brightening in the state, pointing to new faces like Dan Senor, a foreign policy expert and husband of CNN anchor Campbell Brown, who is considering a challenge to Gillibrand.

"New York Democrats are looking more and more like a Jerry Springer episode, and that will intensify voter disaffection," Warfield said. "Republicans should be able to benefit from that."

He added, however, that just as in other parts of the country, the GOP shouldn't be complacent.

"To say the Democrats are unpopular does not mean Republicans are popular. There's a pox on all our houses."