Politicians’ Ambitions and Indiscretions, on Taxpayers’ Tab

In the dispute over New York City’s policy of digitally fingerprinting applicants for food stamps, an interesting footnote was provided by Joel Berg, executive director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger. In 2007, Gov. Eliot Spitzer (remember him?) banned finger-imaging for most of the state beyond the city. Mr. Berg reminded us that one elected official among Mr. Spitzer’s fellow Democrats vigorously attacked the governor for this action.

The Day

Clyde Haberman offers his take on the news.

It “opens the floodgates,” the official warned, “to those unscrupulous individuals who want to take advantage of the system.”

Who sounded this alarm? None other than State Senator Carl Kruger of Brooklyn.

If anyone ought to know about unscrupulous people taking advantage of the system, it would be Mr. Kruger, who blubberingly confessed to a federal judge last month that he had pocketed nearly half a million dollars in bribes. He resigned from the State Senate, and could be packed off to prison for up to 50 years when he is sentenced in April.

Now, thanks to Mr. Kruger’s perfidy, New Yorkers must endure a special election for his Senate seat, ordered by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and scheduled for March 20. Calling a special election is a way to get around that fundamental, if messy, function of democracy known as a primary. Party bosses pick the candidates.

You may recall that the same noble system prevailed four months ago in the special election for the Congressional seat yielded by another disgraced politician, Anthony D. Weiner. Boss rule produced an uninspiring Democrat, Assemblyman David I. Weprin, and a Republican, the ultimately victorious Bob Turner, who gave every impression of being a bored retiree looking for something new to do.

For Mr. Kruger’s seat, the Republicans are expected to put forth a lawyer named David Storobin, who is the party’s Brooklyn vice chairman. His Democratic opponent will be City Councilman Lewis A. Fidler, who announced his candidacy the other day.

At the risk of rehashing old news, may we point out that Mr. Fidler was part of the narrow majority of council members who voted in 2008 to reward themselves — and, of course, the mayor — with possible third terms, even though city voters had made clear in two referendums that they wanted a two-term limit? A rationalization for overriding the will of the people was that economic times were tough, and that made continuity in city government essential. How could we ever manage without the same batch of lawmakers (not to mention the borough presidents)?

Now, barely midway through the third term that he simply had to have, Mr. Fidler seems to have realized that, whoops, maybe he is not indispensable after all.

At least he has hung in longer than a fellow councilman, Simcha Felder. Mr. Felder was a leading force in the vote to extend term limits. But in January 2010, a mere five days into his third term, he quit to take a higher paying job with the city comptroller, John C. Liu. So much for keeping faith with the voters. Sure enough, a special election was held to replace him.

New Yorkers have grown accustomed to special elections in recent years, typically for offices made vacant because their occupants were baldly ambitious or were led away in orange jumpsuits. Each of these events costs about $350,000 to organize, the city’s Board of Elections has said. Naturally, taxpayers pick up the tab.

While $350,000 may seem a small price to pay for democracy, it’s real money, especially for elections that wouldn’t have been necessary if only politicians behaved the way they are supposed to.

Mr. Felder’s case led me in 2010 to echo an editorial suggestion from The Daily News that he and Mr. Liu – not the taxpayers — should pay for that special election out of their campaign accounts. “Honor demands nothing less,” The News said.

No such thing happened. Appeals to honor often fall on deaf ears. All the same, come April, might not the sentencing judge make a similar demand of Mr. Kruger, who surely has money tucked away somewhere? And if the ambitious Mr. Fidler moves on to Albany, might not New Yorkers reasonably ask him to pay for the special election that will then be needed to fill his vacant Council seat?

As the man said, you’ve got to beware of opening the floodgates to those who would take advantage of the system.

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