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Clean up the Pig-Stuy: Let's do something new to end corruption

DR. LENORA FULANI | 5/16/2013, 5:03 p.m.

The corruption scandal washing through New York is making headlines, but serious efforts to reform the system are not making headway. That's because the people responsible for the corruption--politicians of both major parties--are also in charge of reforming it. This situation makes the case of the fox guarding the chicken coop look positively enlightened. At least we all know the fox is going to eat the chickens and we don't have to call in the U.S. attorney or the FBI to tell us!

I've been a political Independent for 30 years for two simple reasons. First, I believe the partisan system is structurally corrupt--whether or not money changes hands--because it is designed to hoard power and to put special interests above the development of our total community. Second, changing those practices, those patterns of partisan self-interest, is going to have to come from outside of the party system. That's why I've been a fierce advocate for the reform called nonpartisan elections.

In a nonpartisan system, candidates run without the authorization of any party and are not competing for a party line, and all voters make their choice in a first-round primary. The top two finishers, regardless of their parties, compete in the general election. The corruption now alleged against state Sen. Malcolm Smith, Councilman Dan Halloran and others is caused by the fact that they tried to bribe Republican Party leaders to allow Smith, a Democrat, to run in the GOP primary. The solution? Eliminate the gateway they supposedly tried to bribe their way through. No gateway, no bribe. That's what a nonpartisan election system does.

I am among a group of Black and Latino activists--Independents, Democrats and Republicans-who began fighting for this reform in 2001. We recognized that a growing number of young people of color were becoming Independents, and if we wanted to encourage their participation in the democratic system, we had to have a system that included them. Nonpartisan elections achieve that. The Democratic and Republican parties, along with nearly every good government group and almost every elected official, fought us every step of the way. These foxes know how to guard their coops!

When I look at the list of New York City elected officials who have been indicted or convicted in recent corruption scandals, I am struck by several things. Many were a part of attempts to upend the partisan power divide in Albany. They set up independent caucuses or groups that broke the rules of party allegiance. This does not make them immune from wrongdoing. But it has, apparently, made them a target for investigation. If we think we can rely on the FBI to make democracy healthy, we'd better think twice!

The "foxes-that-be" are now promoting reforms to "clean up the system." Don't be fooled. You can't clean a pigsty; it's meant to be dirty. You have to set up something new. In fact, the first wave of "reform proposals" coming out of Albany appears to strengthen--not loosen--the hold of the two major parties on the process.