The influence of money in politics goes back to the beginning of our republic.
James Madison said he lost a race for the Virginia Legislature because he didn’t provide free booze to the voters. Aaron Burr arranged for citizens to buy land to get votes. And Andrew Jackson asked the people to whom he gave jobs to contribute part of their pay back to the machine.
Seen in that context perhaps the sins of Andrew Cuomo may not seem so large. As the New York Times reports, Cuomo, as he campaigns for governor, has received millions from the very special interests he has denounced.
Just last month, Cuomo pledged, "The influence of lobbyists and their special interests must be drastically reduced with new contribution limits. We will be taking on very powerful special interests which have much to lose. We must change systems and cultures long in the making."
Yet, the Times found that of the $7.1 million the campaign has taken in, more than half has come from Albany’s "biggest players," including organized labor, the real estate, construction and health care industries -- and lobbying businesses.
The newspaper says there’s an "awkwardness" about running against Albany and its insiders even as he benefits from their contributions.
A Cuomo adviser, Phil Singer, insisted that the attorney general had demonstrated for years his independence from special interests and those who contribute to his campaign.
"Any donor who could possibly think they are buying anything other than good government is delusional and blind to all facts," Singer said.
He noted the attorney general had taken actions against some of the very people who gave him money.
Maybe Andrew Cuomo is more virtuous than all the politicians who run for office, but it’s hard to believe that lobbyists and special interests rain big bucks on his campaign without expecting some benefit in return. Nor would the average voter think so.
Still, one political consultant told me he accepts the Cuomo campaign’s explanation.
"You raise money from special interests because that’s where the money is. His whole career has been concerned with opposing special interests that do wrong," said Hank Sheinkopf. "Unless you have true government-controlled campaign financing you’ve got to get the money from these people."
To this, the average joe may say, "Yeah, right!"
In the world most of us inhabit there is usually a quid pro quo attached to any money transaction. And why would some of the very people Cuomo has pursued contribute to his campaign? It’s hard to believe they don’t expect something in return.
It all reminds one of the words attributed to the notorious (and highly successful) bank robber Willie Sutton.
When asked why he robbed banks, Sutton replied, "Because that’s where the money is!"
If he gets elected, Andrew Cuomo should deliver on campaign finance reform. He could be tempted to hang on to the current dysfunctional system, which favors incumbents with great money resources -- and power.
If he resists that temptation, he will be making an historic contribution to New York.
Actions, not words, will persuade even cynics that he means business.