New York politics, which has consumed more than a dozen elected officials or top staffers in the past two years, has become a kind of bizarre "Survivor" show. And although careers have been ruined and some face prison sentences, none of them lost their jobs by actually being voted off this island.
That's the concern facing those who still want to be New York's next governor. Voters are embarrassed and angry. Three of their four statewide officials — comptroller, governor and lieutenant governor — weren't elected four years ago, but appointed to fill vacancies after scandals. And across the country, voters weary of the Great Recession have begun taking out their suffering on the political class, whose compensation and perks seem immune from the bad economy. It started to show in local elections last fall and with the stunner in Massachusetts, where a Republican took Democratic icon Edward M. Kennedy's U.S. Senate seat.
The latest scandal has prompted Democratic Gov. David Paterson to drop his campaign and it appears to be hurting the Democratic favorite, Andrew Cuomo, for the first time. But it's not yet helping the Republican candidate for governor, former Rep. Rick Lazio, who is now facing a cross-party challenge from a "post-partisan" Democrat who seeks to run from a position far from Albany's turmoil.
"The level of cynicism of elected officials is so high and their level of confidence in government is so low, it's frightening," said Larry Levy, executive director of the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University.
Add to that mix record joblessness and record tax increases, and New York has become a pretty ugly address.
Levy said voters' views of Albany might explain an incongruity in recent polls that showed Paterson with record low job approval ratings — 19 percent in this week's Marist College poll — while 68 percent of voters want him to finish his term, rather than resign or be impeached because of the scandals.
"They are just tired of chaos and disruption and would like to see people doing their jobs, even if they are flawed," said Levy, who had covered Albany for 20 years as a political reporter and columnist. "People are thinking that nobody wears a white hat."
Paterson had vowed to win a full term in November despite an expected primary challenge from the far more popular and better funded Cuomo. But scandals surrounding a woman who accused one of his top aides of domestic violence — and an accusation that the governor got World Series tickets, then lied about whether he intended to pay for them — forced him to end the bid.
Already, Paterson's public security chief, his state police superintendent and his communications director have quit over the scandals.
And now even Cuomo is taking a hit.
The Marist poll on Tuesday found Cuomo's approval rating fell 13 points in two weeks as he began investigating Paterson.
Cuomo, who has not announced his candidacy, had sailed around 67 percent for months. But several polls found New Yorkers think Cuomo shouldn't be investigating the guy everybody thinks he wants to replace, seeing a conflict that law professors say, legally, doesn't exist. Voters, however, appear to be reacting to the mere appearance of a conflict of interest.
Two days after the poll, Cuomo recused himself from the investigation and appointed former Chief Judge Judith Kaye — appointed to the high court by his father, Gov. Mario Cuomo — to be the special counsel in charge of the case. Andrew Cuomo said no "technical conflict" exists, but appointing Kaye would make the probe above reproach from the "ferocity of politics in New York."
Lazio, the Republican, hasn't so far seen a windfall from the scandals, even though the targets have been Democrats.
Lazio is facing a challenge by conservative Democrat Steve Levy, who has a record of defying political party labels. Levy got a rare meeting this week with Republican leaders who might back him. The Suffolk County executive has run on the Democratic, Republican and Conservative parties' lines simultaneously, attracting voters even as he draws the ire of party bosses.
Larry Levy of the National Center for Suburban Studies says such an outsider image, if it can be cultivated, could be essential in this year's governor's race.
There's a reason 55 percent of New Yorkers told a Siena College poll this month that they are embarrassed to say they are from New York. The unprecedented stretch of scandal began when Democratic Gov. Eliot Spitzer resigned in March 2008 amid a prostitution scandal and includes the conviction this year of former Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno, a Republican, for pocketing more than $1 million in consulting fees. In between was the sentencing of 30-year veteran Assemblyman Anthony Seminerio, a Democrat, for collecting $1 million in consulting fees for, in his own words, "doing nothing"; and Sen. Hiram Monserrate, a Queens Democrat, who was expelled from his seat in February following a misdemeanor assault conviction involving his girlfriend.
In a special election on Tuesday, Monserrate will try to win back the seat he lost.
"I can't think of another period where you have seen that many high-ranking officials involved," said political science Professor Christopher W. Larimer of the University of Northern Iowa, a researcher of leadership traits and flaws.
He said this lack of confidence in government often results in poor election turnouts because it will be hard for any candidate to excite the electorate. He said such widespread dissatisfaction could even prompt voters to turn against their own legislators, rather than just blame the Legislature.