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New York Is the Most Politically Toxic Place in America

This is a national problem, and it afflicts both Democrats and Republicans.

Eric Schneiderman speaks with Governor Andrew Cuomo (L) during an event in 2014. (Photo by Mark Lennihan-Pool/Getty Images)

Until Monday night, Eric Schneiderman was regarded as a model progressive in the #MeToo era—a powerful Democrat who, as New York’s attorney general, sued Harvey Weinstein for civil and human rights violations over the movie mogul’s alleged abuse of women. But Schneiderman’s reputation and career have collapsed after The New Yorker revealed that he, too, allegedly abused women.

Four women, including two longtime partners, told the magazine that Schneiderman slapped, spat on, or punched them. He also used his political authority to intimidate them. When one of them tried to ward off his attack, he said, “You know, hitting an officer of the law is a felony.” Schneiderman’s political position served as a shield in another way: It made the women reluctant to report his actions for fear of hurting his political career. When one former girlfriend talked to friends about the abuse she suffered, according to reporters Jane Mayer and Ronan Farrow, “A number of them advised her to keep the story to herself, arguing that Schneiderman was too valuable a politician for the Democrats to lose.”

Schneiderman, who has denied the allegations but resigned nonetheless, is not just another powerful man brought down in the #MeToo era. He’s also a prime example of a specific phenomenon: the immoral New York politician. The state, and its namesake city, seem to produce more than their share of men who abuse their political power, whether for financial gain, career advancement, or the mistreatment of women.

This is neither just a regional problem, nor a strictly partisan one. New York has always had an outsized influence on national politics, and although Democrats are dominant in the state, the current president is very much a product of its political culture, too. New York’s toxic politics are further poisoning Washington’s politics—and yet, it may take other New York politicians to clean it up.

The claim has been fact-checked: New York is the most corrupt state in America. Or at least it was in 2016, when PolitiFact found that the media had “chronicled more than 30 corruption cases in the past decade,” more than any other state. In fact, “The data shows New York State has led the nation in public corruption for decades.”

PolitiFact has not looked into whether the state has also had an inordinate number of sex scandals, but two high profile cases come to mind: In 2008, New York Governor Elliot Spitzer resigned after revelations that he had hired a sex worker, and former New York Congressman Anthony Weiner is in prison for sexting a minor.

Trump marries these two patterns of New York politics: He’s both corrupt and sexually scandalous. He openly uses his office for self-enrichment, through properties including his hotel in Washington and his private club in Florida, where guests also trying to curry favor with him. Abroad, the Trump Organization has made deals with shady partners in countries like India and Russia. He’s also hounded by allegations that he had an affair with adult film star Stormy Daniels and, through longtime lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen, paid her $130,000 to keep quiet.

It’s impossible to understand why Trump’s administration has been so scandal-wracked without appreciating where he comes from. Writing in New York magazine recently, Frank Rich portrayed Trump as a creature of New York City’s elite culture of corruption. Trump’s mentor, the late lawyer Roy Cohn, was a notorious fixer who operated in a world of hidden favors and chits. Cohn’s biographer, Nicholas von Hoffman, cheekily called it “Roy Cohn Barter and Swap Exchange,” where “deals, favors, hand washings, and reciprocities of all kinds” took place.

“And while Cohn is gone,” Rich wrote, “the exchange never shut down. Its unofficial legislative body is the floating quid pro quo Favor Bank that has always made New York tick at its highest levels, however corruptly, since Tammany Hall. It’s a realm where everyone has his (or her) price, and clout is always valued higher than any civic good. All that matters is the next transaction. Since time immemorial, those who find it unsavory are invariably dismissed as naïve.”

This culture played a central role in Trump’s rise. “Trump practiced bigotry on a grand scale, was a world-class liar, and ripped off customers, investors, and the city itself,” Rich wrote. “Yet for many among New York’s upper register, there was no horror he could commit that would merit his excommunication. As with Cohn before him, the more outrageously and reprehensibly Trump behaved, the more the top rungs of society were titillated by him.”

Albany has a similarly toxic culture, producing no shortage of scandals. Sam Hoyt, a former Democratic assemblyman, kept his job in 2008 despite having an affair with a 23-year-old intern, but resigned in 2017 after revelations that he paid a woman $50,000 to withhold a sexual harassment complaint against him. In 2009, state Senator Hiram Monserrate was convicted of misdemeanor assault after slashing his girlfriend with a drinking glass; he later served prison time for corruption. This year, a staffer accused state Senator Jeff Klein of forcing his tongue into her mouth in 2015. He remains the leader of the Independent Democratic Conference in the statehouse.

There are many theories as to why New York is so corrupt. In 2013, NPR’s Allan Greenblatt listed a few: It’s effectively a one-party state, with the Democrats so dominant that there is no political competition and machine politics set the agenda; the elections are expensive, making candidates reliant on donors; many key decisions, such as the shape of the state budget, are made in backroom deals between a few power players; the local media is so focused on national events that it ignores what’s happening in the state (especially upstate); and there’s no anti-corruption movement to challenge the existing culture.

New York politics are also very male dominated, a gender disparity that might explain why sexual harassment is so common. An Associated Press investigation in January found that “New Yorkers have paid more than $10 million over the last nine years to settle 88 cases of sexual harassment, discrimination, and related cases in state government, almost all of which were brought by women reporting groping, come-ons and demeaning treatment.” The following month, Politico reported that “more than 1,000 people ... have complained of sexual harassment in New York state government entities since 2012,” costing taxpayers at least $6.4 million in legal settlements.

But powerful female politicians have also been forged in this environment, notably Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, who has made fighting sexual harassment and assault a signature issue. And the fall of politicians like Schneiderman creates new openings for women. Fordham University law professor Zephyr Teachout, who ran against Governor Andrew Cuomo in 2014, tweeted on Tuesday:

But if New York has a longstanding culture of corruption, it also has been a hotbed of political reform. Exemplified by figures like President Franklin D. Roosevelt, U.S. Senator Robert Wagner Sr., and Congresswoman Bella Abzug, this alternative tradition challenged machine bosses and advanced progressive causes like organized labor and gay rights. The promise of figures like Gillibrand is that by transcending New York’s immoral political culture, they can also, unlike Schneiderman, become untarnished forces for reform.