One of the slogans of President Clinton’s 1992 Presidential campaign was “Putting People First.” Those three words gave voice to the growing feeling in the country that the people’s needs were not being put first – the political saga playing itself out in New York State is just the latest evidence for an increasingly cynical America that in fact, it’s not about them anymore.
Unfortunately, just as he stubbornly refused for far too long to accept that his candidacy for governor was not viable, Governor Paterson can’t seem to recognize that it’s not all about him. Seriously, Governor Paterson, when you’ve got Reverend Al calling a meeting at Sylvia’s, you shouldn’t wait to be asked, it’s time to do the right thing, put the needs of the people first, and step down.
Having been elevated to governor in the wake of Eliot Spitzer’s scandals, Paterson should recognize that while he might think (and even deserve) he has the right to fight, maybe doing so while sitting in the governor’s office is not what’s right for the people of the state of New York. No doubt New Yorkers have scandal fatigue and the scandals have not been contained in one party.
Earlier this year New York State’s comptroller Alan Hevesi stepped down in the wake of accusations that he had used his staff to run private errands and selling access to New York’s pension fund. Joe Bruno, the Republican New York Senate Majority leader was convicted of taking bribes, and just yesterday Congressman Eric Massa announced that he was not going to run again for “health reasons”, never mind the accusations of inappropriate advances made to a staffer. Beyond the various scandals, New York is in real financial trouble, currently facing the need for “extraordinary cash measures”, including withholding about $1.4 billion of payments in March for school aid, tax refunds or not-for-profit groups who provide state services.
Like most Americans, New Yorkers are fed up with a broken system that allows elected officials, celebrities and CEO’s live by one set of rules where their actions are not tied to the consequences, while the rest of us live in the real world where we just don’t have that luxury. It cuts against a fundamental American value that there should be some sense of fairness, or at least the opportunity for fair treatment. The scandals are not contained to the public sector, news about bank bailouts and Toyota withholding critical information about its cars to protect its profits all contribute to an underlying sense that something is seriously broken, and we the people are getting pushed farther and farther out of the picture.
I spent time this week in focus groups listening to Americans from various walks of life, and across the political spectrum. The one thing they said over and over again is, “who is looking out for us?” “Nobody cares about us, not the politicians or the companies”. Poll after poll shows an increasing mistrust of institutions, corporations and government. There is also a deepening feeling that our system is so broken that partisan bickering has replaced the recognition that it is an honor to be elected and your job is to represent the best interests of the people who put you in that office. In other words, it’s not about you. It’s about the people, stupid, to paraphrase another slogan from ‘92.
Now, earlier this week Congressman Charlie Rangel demonstrated the class that we’ve come to know and respect throughout his many years of service, when he announced he would temporarily hand over his chairmanship. Congressman Rangel gets it: it’s not all about him. It made me think about a question a pastor once put to the congregation during his sermon: “What will you do with your opportunity to lead?” So I put that question to Governor Paterson. You can be a part of making things right, show you understand that ultimately its not about you, instead of reconfirming that the system is so broken the needs of the people don’t even matter any more.