It has been around forever

Monday, October 11, 2010

The Government Funded Political Machines: UPDATE

It used to be that political clubs were the most powerful weapons of incumbency for politicians, but that looks like child's play compared to today's political machines. These new political machines are large, highly motivated and powered by our tax dollars. ChangeNY does a nice job of piecing together the Vito Lopez fiasco in Brooklyn to show how this scheme works. Here is some text from an article they link to that was written in 1993 by the New York Times entitled, Growth of a New Age Political Machine: "The organization, the Ridgewood Bushwick Senior Citizens Council, employs 1,400 people through more than 50 grants budgeted at more than $33 million annually. Yet at the same time many of those taxpayer dollars -- allocated for pressing human needs -- have been put to work for private, political purposes as well. They have paid for an agglomeration of power that has stunted the neighborhood's political diversity, rewarded a handful of Mr. Lopez's proteges with well-paying jobs, enriched politically connected contractors and produced programs that in several instances have been criticized for accounting and performance."
Now fast forward to 2010 scandal involving this same center as Greg Smith from the Daily News writes an article entitled, Brooklyn Democratic Boss Vito Lopez has Secret Army -- Uses Senior Center Staff for Political Machine. "A former employee of Lopez's nonprofit, the Ridgewood Bushwick Senior Citizens Center, described a coercive atmosphere where bosses "suggest" that employees perform numerous political tasks. A worker who doesn't comply is ostracized, and could even be fired. Supervisors would ask you to petition for candidates. If you said nothing, they'd say, 'Well you really should go out and petition tonight,'" the former employee said. "People would say, 'It's purely voluntary, here at Ridgewood Bushwick, it's purely voluntary.' But it's understood, you wanted to do it. " And it goes on to say,"Another way Ridgewood employees help out is with money. Records show they routinely make campaign donations to Lopez's candidates - 87 totaling $8,730 between 2000 and 2009."

The only reason Vito Lopez's operation is being exposed is because of its size and audacity. In fact, almost every politician has some form of this operation. They all give tens of thousands of our dollars (usually in the form of member items or just plain pork) to numerous community organizations with little oversight or even less public scrutiny. In its worst form, those programs employ relatives or close associates of the politician, who then pay them back by blatantly using the operation for political purposes. These are the cases where we have seen so many politicians indicted for getting too greedy.
But the more common example is where a politician funds a community program (could be a senior citizen program or community group) and they are now beholden to that elected official. The way that loyalty is repaid is through the board and staff helping the politician with fundraising or campaigning. In addition, those politicians are given unusual access to the center to campaign among its clients (although it is often described as a non-political visit). This incestuous relationship with a community organization can sometimes determine the outcome of an election if that organization has a few hundred employees and services hundreds of seniors or other local residents.

The sad part is that many of the programs that are funded by politicians are doing great work for the community. However, they are often put in a terrible positions by those politicians who want a lot in return for giving them our tax dollars. Until this practice is radically reformed or even stopped if it can't be reformed, then we will continue to have slush fund scandals and these new government funded political clubs will continue to grow and represent the real power of incumbency.
UPDATE:check out this recent posting on the same topic by Dominic Carter.

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