Statehouses Often Look Like Frat Houses
Posted March 20, 2008 2:34 p.m. EDT
ALBANY, N.Y. — Of all the wisecracks heard in the marble halls of New York's Capitol after Gov. Eliot Spitzer's downfall in a call-girl scandal, one jest enlightened as much as it stung: Spitzer's got to be the only guy in Albany who PAYS for sex.
It is an open secret that there is a lot of fooling around going on at the statehouse. And at other statehouses, too.
In fact, Gov. David Paterson, in an extraordinary news conference on Tuesday, his first full day on the job after taking over from Spitzer, acknowledged he had had extramarital affairs with a number of women while he was a state senator.
At night, legislators, young staffers, younger interns, lobbyists and reporters mix at two or three bars just blocks from the Capitol. And there are numerous receptions, campaign stops and caucuses where lawmakers, straight and gay alike, often have many opportunities for a hookup.
Up until just a few years ago, lawmakers would go "window shopping" for interns at the start of every legislative session. In a practice that went on for decades, the interns would be corraled in a Capitol newsstand so that legislators could pick their office help based on their looks, not their resumes.
The hanky-panky even has its own lexicon: There's the "Bear Mountain Compact," which says that what goes on north of the state park just outside New York City stays there. Lobbyists, staffers and reporters who seek to enhance their influence by bedding powerful lawmakers are known as "big game hunters." And the men who sleep with the women lawmakers are "boy toys."
"Unfortunately, many of the people who seek public office are flawed people to begin with and the environment in Albany just tends to bring that out," said Paul Clyne, former district attorney in Albany.
Clyne issued a scathing report in 2004 on the internship program at the Capitol, famously saying he would never let his daughter become an intern. The report led to reforms in the program, including an end to fraternization between lawmakers and interns outside the office.
"There was a lot hitting on us and boundaries being crossed," said one young woman lobbyist who was part of that scene for years.
In truth, the phenomenon is not new, and it's not confined to Albany. By all accounts, the same thing goes on at other state capitals, particularly where the statehouse is far from the main population centers and lawmakers stay overnight several times a week. Men and women outside politics are prone to some of the same behavior when they go on business trips.
"One of the things about Washington and every state capital is for some people it's like going to a convention," said state Assemblyman John McEneny, an Albany Democrat and former Albany County historian. "What happens is you get individuals who would not behave the same way if they had the disapproval of friends and neighbors keeping an eye on them."
In Colorado, state Rep. Michael Garcia resigned this year after a female lobbyist accused him of sexual misconduct at a bar. He said he engaged in "consensual" but "inappropriate" conduct.
Accusations of sex and politics have taken down congressmen and senators, and nearly brought down President Clinton in 1998. A sex scandal was the undoing of New Jersey Gov. James E. McGreevey in 2004 and derailed Colorado Sen. Gary Hart's 1988 presidential campaign.
"It really is not anything new," said Tom Fiedler, who covered Hart's downfall as a reporter with The Miami Herald and is now a visiting lecturer at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University "I would have no reason to believe any public officer is any less susceptible to temptations of the flesh than any one who is not in public office."
But the New York state capital - a place of larger-than-life personalities like Theodore and Franklin D. Roosevelt and big ideas like the Erie Canal - seems to have an outsized history of sexual conduct and misconduct.
Last week, Spitzer's career collapsed just days after the 48-year-old married man was identified by federal authorities as Client 9 of a high-priced prostitution ring.
Other Albany cases include Michael Boxley, the chief lawyer for the speaker of the Assembly, who was led out of the Capitol in handcuffs in 2003 and later pleaded guilty to sexual misconduct after a legislative aide accused him of rape. In 2004, a 19-year-old intern said state Assemblyman Adam Clayton Powell IV, a member of a legendary Harlem political family, gave her alcohol and took her to his motel room for sex. Powell, 42 at the time, said the sex was consensual; no charges were filed.
And in 1992, New York Chief Judge Sol Wachtler, a potential Republican candidate for governor, was charged with harassing a socialite and GOP fundraiser after she ended their affair. He admitted posing as a private detective to stalk the woman and mailing her menacing letters, including a threat to kidnap her teenage daughter. Wachtler served 13 months in prison.
Stories of mistresses followed Govs. Thomas Dewey, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Grover Cleveland.
In 1961, a photo appeared in the press of Gov. Nelson Rockefeller helping his wife down the roof of the governor's mansion as firefighters battled a fire. Mary Rockefeller was in robe and nightgown while the governor was smiling, dapper in a suit and rakish scarf. He had reportedly been out for a night on the town before he rushed back for a photo.
Some cases quietly lead to resignations and job transfers before they ever reach the Legislative Ethics Committee, which is criticized by good-government groups as too passive.
A Republican former lawmaker, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject, said lawmakers have become more discreet about their dalliances, because of such factors as more competitive campaigns, cell phone cameras, and political blogs that can instantly and widely circulate accusations.
"You take your life in your hands if you do this now," he said.