Dissecting New York's Mayoral Race Scandal

Weekend Edition Saturday host Scott Simon talks with Errol Louis, host of NY1's Inside City Hall, about the latest in the New York City mayoral race bribe scheme. A Democratic New York state senator is charged with trying to buy a spot on the Republican ticket.

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Undercover agents, wiretaps, shady meetings in parked cars - the unfolding political scandal in the New York City mayor's race has all the right elements for drama. Six politicians - Democrats and Republicans, - have been arrested in an alleged plot to rig a primary in this year's election.

For more, we turn now to Errol Louis. He's the host of NY1's "Inside City Hall" political program and he joins us from New York. Errol, thanks so much for being back with us.

ERROL LOUIS: Absolutely. Glad to be with you.

SIMON: Could you please give us as succinct an explanation as you can come up with - I mean, this is an alleged plot for a Democrat to bribe his way onto the Republican ballot for mayor.

LOUIS: Yeah, that sounds about right. It's as follows: Unlike most places in the country, New York City has five counties within the city and under the election rules here, if a majority of the five Republican county leaders were to agree, they could let anybody run as a Republican. And there is a Democratic state senator who attempted to do just that. Where he went wrong, according to federal prosecutors, is that he gave people cash in envelopes, and was trying to do favors for people, using state money as a way to get that particular favor done for him. Asking for the favor is not illegal; the cash in the envelope probably is.

SIMON: So what's wrong with just circulating nomination petitions? Isn't that how it's usually done?

LOUIS: In New York, no - afraid not. (LAUGHTER) It's a little bit more complicated than that. You have to be - we have what's called a closed primary system; where you have to either be a member of the party, or you have to secure permission from the majority of the leaders of the party, to even put yourself before the voters in - even a party primary.

SIMON: Errol, I - obviously - say this as a Chicagoan but I mean, at least in Illinois, we offer a Senate seat for the bribe.


SIMON: This is - I mean, this is just to get on the ballot for the primary, where you have to go ahead and win an election.

LOUIS: Well, that's right. And in fact, Malcolm Smith, who is charged with this scheme, is a liberal, lifelong Democrat who happened to be African-American; and this is not necessarily a winning formula to win a Republican primary in New York or frankly, anywhere else. That introduces a question of motive and, you know, he's been routinely ridiculed this week by members of the political establishment, as being crazy or delusional or unrealistic.

I have a slightly different view of it - which is that ironically, one of the reforms here in New York City is that we have the most generous matching funds program. It's intended to take money out of elections; it might have had the opposite effect here. For every dollar, every small-dollar donation that you get to a New York City mayoral campaign, you get a match of 6 to 1. And it is entirely possible - and it is, frankly, something that we're starting to see some evidence of - that people run campaigns not because they have any hope of winning, but because they'd like to have those matching funds and to use them for, you know, quote-unquote, "campaign meetings" at fancy steakhouses and to sort of - or kind of run around and finance one's lifestyle through campaign funds which, frankly, Sen. Smith has a history of doing. In the last five years, running for re-election to state Senate seat for which he had no significant opposition, he spent something in the range of about $2 million.

SIMON: I'm interested in Mayor Bloomberg's reaction because - well, he doesn't have a high opinion of politicians despite what he's been doing for the past eight, 12, 16 years.

LOUIS: Well, that's right. And he is someone who has been openly disdainful of party politics and indeed, his attitude has been, this is a matter of simple dishonesty; and it's why we should have nonpartisan elections. I'm not sure that that is an adequate answer because these folks, you know, I mean, you've got - you've really covered the whole gamut, you know. (LAUGHTER) You've got Democrats and Republicans; you've got upstate and city; you know, you've got white and black and Italian and Jewish, all combining. It is a melting pot of corruption. If the allegations in the criminal complaint are correct, they were pretty much hell-bent on trying to steal some money, no matter what.

SIMON: Errol Louis, the host of NY1's "Inside City Hall." Thanks so much. Talk to you again. Try and keep your nose clean, in the meantime.

LOUIS: Oh absolutely. Thanks a lot, Scott.

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