State of the Planet

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Public Service, Public Ethics and New York’s Political Life

I have been committed to the mission of public service for as long as I can remember. When JFK asked what I could do for my country, even at seven years of age, I was sold. I’ve been a public servant, a consultant and an educator of future public servants, and my life-long goal has always been to make the world a better place. Of course, there are many ways to pursue the mission of public service. Some people work as community organizers, some as policy advocates and others as public officials. Others work in the Peace Corps, the military or serve as first responders. I decided that for me, the role of educator and consultant was a good fit. I am proud of the many students I’ve prepared for careers in public and sustainability management and the many contributions they have made to our nation and planet. While the overwhelming number of people in public service are idealistic and ethical, some are not. Sometimes the quest for public service can lead people to cut corners on the way they work to achieve what they believe are critical goals. They sacrifice standards of ethical behavior to amass the resources or power needed to reach important goals. Sadly, they fail to understand that one cannot truly achieve the goals of public service without choosing the path of ethical public service.

What do I mean by ethical public service? Back in 1995, my colleague Bill Eimicke and I published a piece entitled “Ethics and the Public Administrator.” In that piece, we concluded that Carol Lewis in her landmark work The Ethics Challenge in Public Service, gave:

…the best specific advice for the ethical behavior of public administrators in her 21 rules of thumb, which we have reduced to five principles:

  1. Obey and implement the law.
  2. Serve the public interest.
  3. Avoid doing harm.
  4. Take individual responsibility for the process and its consequences.       
  5. Treat incompetence as an abuse of office.”

The fall of Andrew Cuomo was largely the result of his failure to adhere to the 4th principle, although there are several other principles he seems to have forgotten. Sadly, his behavior since announcing his resignation continues to violate the principle of taking responsibility for the process of governing. He continues to see himself as a victim. His shameful behavior toward women reflected the bullying style of politics he seemed to believe was the only way to deal with Albany’s environment of self-dealing and corruption. He sometimes acted as if efforts to build consensus would distort his ability to achieve critical objectives. Compromise was weakness, and he seemed to think that without the power to force others to adhere to his perspective, nothing would be accomplished. In Cuomo’s view, securing important policies and programs, from gay marriage to pre-school funding, required “political muscle.” His macho management style inevitably led to ethical lapses where the ends were used to justify the illegitimate means.

There are other, less confrontational methods for practicing politics and exercising leadership. Doris Kearns Goodwin’s wonderful book, Team of Rivals, discusses Abraham Lincoln’s Cabinet, which was mainly comprised of his political opponents. Lincoln reasoned and argued with his colleagues. He listened and learned. Similarly, FDR did not let his lack of mobility prevent him from hearing from key stakeholders and average Americans. Eleanor Roosevelt traveled America to listen for him, and FDR himself famously was the first American President to fly overseas to visit American troops in battle. Winston Churchill lived for weeks at the White House and argued and tried to manipulate FDR night and day. Roosevelt used guile, indirection, and charm to outsmart his opponents, who usually assumed they were smarter than he was.

Standards of private behavior have changed, largely for the better, over the last century. My childhood hero John F. Kennedy’s behavior toward women was indefensible in its time and would probably be criminal today. Anthony Weiner, Elliot Spitzer, Bill Clinton, and Andrew Cuomo were all public officials decades after JFK’s death, and their misconduct was and is inexcusable.  Public servants should be held to the highest standards of behavior. No one is perfect and people make mistakes, but when a public servant makes a mistake, the correct response is to admit the mistake, ask for forgiveness and learn from it. Attacking a whistle-blower is unethical behavior. Donald Trump may have normalized that approach,  but Andrew Cuomo should have known better. Means and ends can never be divorced. Cuomo called New York State Attorney General Letitia James’ report on his misconduct a political attack, and yet anyone who took the trouble to read the report can only conclude that it was a truthful rendering of the behavior of an overly aggressive, misguided, and sometimes delusional public figure. Cuomo’s self-image is that of a fighter, a trait he shares with Donald Trump. Both see opponents as enemies. Attacking the motives of the Attorney General, like attacking the motives of whistle-blowers, is more of the same approach that led to Andrew’s resignation and Trump’s defeat. As someone who often voted for Andrew Cuomo, I feel deeply disappointed and profoundly betrayed.

Competent public service requires the effective management of public organizations. In the 21st century, this requires outsourcing and public-private partnerships, but in an era of limitless campaign money, these partnerships can and are a source of institutionalized corruption. Ethical public servants must find a way to separate government decision-making from campaign fund-raising. Here in New York state and New York City, the prevalence of pay-to-play is obvious and creates significant disincentives to ethical public decision-making. Andrew Cuomo may have left office in disgrace, but he also left it with a political war chest reported at $18 million. Donald Trump has raised many millions of dollars peddling lies about the fairness of the 2020 presidential election. As a demonstration of integrity and remorse, Cuomo should return the funds and take a long break from partisan politics.

We are not living in the golden age of public ethics. In the Citizens United case, the U.S. Supreme Court equated campaign spending with free speech and public ethics- never easy in any era, started the long slide down a slippery slope that seems to know no end. Elected officials may begin their career with idealism and dedication to public service. But soon, they find they need campaign cash to compete, and the sell-out begins. Occasionally a Mike Bloomberg comes along who is so wealthy he doesn’t need anyone’s money to run for public office, but Bloomberg is far from typical and, in any case, we need a better solution to the massive influence of money in politics.

While Andrew Cuomo’s fall was not directly caused by any campaign cash scandals, the environment of politics in New York is dominated by money. In a recent article about Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams’ activities since winning the Democratic nomination for Mayor, New York Times reporters Dana Rubinstein and Emma G. Fitzsimmons observed that:

“…Mr. Adams — who has raised more than $11 million in public and private funds for the primary, and now has about $2 million on hand — has been working overtime on the fund-raising circuit, attending as many as five fund-raisers in one day… In his years in elected office, Mr. Adams’s fund-raising has, at times, tested the boundaries of campaign-finance and ethics laws. Mr. Adams was investigated as a state senator for his role in awarding a video lottery machine contract at Aqueduct Racetrack after, among other things, soliciting donations from people affiliated with the bidders. He has also been criticized for taking money as Brooklyn borough president from developers who were lobbying him for crucial zoning changes. Good government groups have said they will be watching closely to make sure that Mr. Adams steers clear of conflicts of interest; his summer of fund-raising may offer opportunity for dissection.”

Adams has no choice but to raise campaign dollars just as Cuomo was a prodigious collector of cash. While raising campaign funds is a legal and legitimate activity, the money, the parties, and the schmoozing create an atmosphere of privileged access. For Cuomo, the massive political war chest was as much a weapon of intimidation as an instrument facilitating political communication. It seems that the path that began with intimidating political opponents eventually led to abusing staff.

While Andrew Cuomo seems to have fallen from the political mountain top, Eric Adams has yet to reach his peak. Adams has an opportunity to set a tone of selfless public service and could decide to lead New York in the public interest as opposed to the private interests of campaign funders. Listening to the views of all stakeholders requires that he pay close attention to the views of both business and community-based leaders. I hope he learns to lessons of Cuomo’s demise and uses the singular power of New York’s Mayoralty to make the city a better, safer place to live. But to do that, he needs to pay close attention to the interconnection of public service and public ethics.



Views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Columbia Climate School, Earth Institute or Columbia University.

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2 years ago

Great article but it is Eric* not Erik