Theresa Manzuk looked at me with skepticism. Bundled in a fleece jacket, the 56-year-old Hamburg resident was enjoying a coffee break on Court Street on a damp afternoon.
“You really want to know what my opinion is?” Manzuk asked with a hint of disbelief.
Yes, I said, repeating the question. Do you think Albany politicians can clean up their mess?
“It’s not going to change,” Manzuk said flatly.
She told me she has become jaded in the last 16 years watching political scandal after political scandal.
“It’s wrong, but you almost become complacent about it,” she said.
Welcome to 2016, a time for fresh optimism and rosy predictions, or, since we’re talking Albany politics, a time for renewed cynicism and fresh doubt that change will come.
Manzuk isn’t the only skeptical New Yorker. In fact, it’s pretty tough to find someone optimistic that the blockbuster convictions of two of the state’s top lawmakers late last year will bring true revelations of altruism to the halls of the State Capitol. This, after all, is the state where an idea to build a Museum of Political Corruption in the capital has gained more traction than most actual efforts at reform.
“Those double dippers? Those triple dippers? I need that job,” said Lamar Gray, a nurse’s aide who was waiting for the No. 1 bus near Lafayette Square. “I mean, retire and still get paid? I was like, ‘What? I’m in the wrong field.’ ”
Not to mention those forced into retirement by corruption convictions who still qualify for hefty pensions paid for by the very same taxpayers they cheated. It’s enough to make your blood boil. Only, in New York State, it seems to have the opposite effect: resignation to the idea that this is just how it’s always been and always will be.
“I just think that’s how they play the game,” Gray said. “That’s just how they go. You’re not going to be able to change it overnight.”
The convictions late last year of Sheldon Silver and Dean Skelos – two out of three of the most powerful men in Albany – should have shaken the Albany establishment to its core. Instead, lawmakers have so far served up the same old tepid promises of reform. And voters remain deeply skeptical. A Siena College poll last month found that 61 percent of New Yorkers surveyed agreed to some degree with this sad statement shortly after Silver’s corruption conviction: “Silver got caught, the next guy will do the same just more carefully.”
It’s not for lack of ideas. Plenty of reform proposals have been floating around for years – from closing a loophole that lets certain donors bypass contribution limits to cutting off public pensions for convicted lawmakers.
Yet year after year, lawmakers find lame excuses to keep the status quo.
Angel Jacques, 31, moved to Buffalo three years ago from Florida, but she’s already seen enough of Albany to adopt the tell-tale New Yorker skepticism. Too much money in elections, she said, has distracted lawmakers.
“You end up spending more time paying off those who contributed to your campaign, rather than more important issues,” Jacques said. “I don’t think anything is going to change anytime soon.”
Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the Legislature will return to Albany this week with a golden opportunity to break the skepticism and distrust that has taken hold of New York. It’s their chance to prove us wrong.