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Arnold sets standard for transparency

I have to hand it to Gia Arnold. In her brief, meteoric political career, the young woman has set a standard of transparency that every politician ought to emulate.

I’m not saying we need to know the intimate details of all of our elected officials’ lives. In the age of TMI, a little restraint goes a long way.

But Arnold, in revealing Wednesday the personal missteps that sideswiped her political aspirations, kept her promise of openness to voters. Along the way, I think she set a transparency standard for politicians that extends to what they do in office.

Arnold, 24, was an unendorsed Republican running for the State Senate seat to be vacated by George Maziarz. The Niagara County political power surprised many last month by announcing his retirement. Although supposedly for family reasons, Maziarz’s move came in the midst of a U.S. attorney’s probe into his use of $140,000 in campaign funds – including, allegedly, for wine and a clown rental.

If true, it’s the sort of poleaxing of the public trust that’s ingrained in Albany’s political culture. It’s the kind of nonsense I think Arnold, if she returns to political life, would be too honest to sink to.

Politicians flirting with scandal usually bow out for “personal reasons.” In the email announcing the end of her grass-roots campaign, Arnold – who is married with three children – didn’t hide behind generalizations. The political newcomer not only admitted to an extramarital affair, she revealed the exact date she slept with a “close friend” – Aug. 1 – and provided her cellphone number for prospective constituents’ reactions.

Now that’s transparency.

Some might suggest that the personal drama, instead of sabotaging her political career, renders Arnold a perfect fit for our scandal-ridden state capital. But it’s not the tawdry revelations that struck me; it’s the commitment to across-the-board openness that’s behind them.

Arnold told me that it’s the same transparency she vowed would mark her political dealings. If that’s so, she would – by extension – be disinclined to make backroom deals; sell out constituents for personal gain; set up friends and family in cushy political jobs; fill the wish lists of hefty campaign donors; bend to the will of lobbyists; or engage in the other sleaziness that leaves politicians ranked below pickpockets on the popularity scale.

“Absolutely, that’s who I am,” she told me Thursday by phone. “I promised my constituents I’d be open about everything, and I was. I think every representative should have the characteristic of being 100 percent open.”

Arnold ran with Conservative and tea party backing. Her “personal freedom” platform was a buffet from which anyone could find something to like, ranging from legalized pot to gun rights to term limits, tax cuts and gay marriage. A central part of it is transparency.

Granted, cheating on a spouse is no advertisement for integrity. She admitted as much, and – sensibly, I think – said she’s stepping back to sort out personal issues. But she came clean almost immediately and went public, despite the damage to her private and political life.

“Some people said I should wait until after the election,” she said of the revelations, “but that doesn’t fit who I am. I felt like I needed to admit this.”

The irony, of course, is she got more attention for fessing up to the affair than anything she said during the campaign. If, by some minor miracle, she wins the primary – it’s too late to take her name off the Sept. 9 ballot – I fear that it might inspire a horde of copycats. Politics is enough of a cesspool without candidates running on an infidelity platform. But I digress.

In a recent poll, nearly 9 in 10 New Yorkers called corruption a “serious” problem in Albany. The governor last spring disbanded the Moreland Commission, formed to unearth political abuses, after deflecting probes that reportedly hit too close to home. It only fuels the public’s distrust of those in the public trust.

Despite Arnold’s personal issues, quirky political agenda and tiny place in the campaign universe, she stands as the polar opposite to the chicanery, corruption and personal agendas that fuel our cynical view of politicians.

She may, in her personal revelations, be honest to a fault – but at least she is honest.

Arnold is also putting her money behind her integrity. In another example to elected officials, she will donate her campaign funds to charity, rather than – like a legion of politicians before her – take the money and run.

Gia, we hardly knew ye. But you left a legacy of openness that we only hope other politicians follow.