Former Rep. Eric Massa and his tickle fights are so 2010. Eliot Spitzer? He’s two governors ago. With the shirtless photo sent to a woman he was trying to woo online, Rep. Chris Lee is the latest in a string of New York politicians whose misdeeds have riveted national attention.
Lee, a 46-year old Republican and married father, resigned his Buffalo-area seat Thursday after the gossip website Gawker published e-mails he sent to a woman he met on Craigslist, including a photo where he is shirtless and flexing a bicep. Lee released a statement apologizing to his family and constituents for letting them down.
Lee is hardly the first politician to engage in bad behavior. But many lately have come from the Empire State — from the densely packed, hyper-caffeinated New York City metropolitan area to the rural communities and industrial cities upstate.
“I don’t think it’s anything in the water, but we do seem to have a disproportionally large amount of scandal,” state Democratic Party Chairman Jay Jacobs said. “Maybe it’s because we’re a high-profile state, we have a dynamic population, and we run at a faster pace than many places.”
A year ago, it was Massa’s turn in the spotlight.
A freshman Democrat from western New York, the 50-year old Massa abruptly resigned his seat, citing health concerns. News surfaced within days that he was under investigation by a House ethics panel for sexual misconduct, a charge he denied even as he acknowledged participating in tickle fights with some male aides.
“They are saying I groped a male staffer,” Massa said in a television interview. “Yeah, I did. Not only did I grope him. I tickled him until he couldn’t breathe.”
Also last year, Carl Paladino, a Buffalo real estate developer, burst onto the national scene when he won the Republican primary to challenge Democrat Andrew Cuomo. Paladino, whose candidacy was backed widely by tea party activists, acknowledged fathering a child out of wedlock and, with no evidence, publicly accused Cuomo of infidelity during his 15-year marriage to Kerry Kennedy, a daughter of former New York Sen. Robert Kennedy. He later backed away from that charge.
A videotaped dustup where Paladino threatened to “take out” a political reporter became a national cable news staple for days and Paladino had to apologize for racist and pornographic e-mails that he forwarded — twice.
Cuomo trounced Paladino by 30 percentage points in the November election. But Paladino has remained visible and some supporters are already pressing him to enter the race to succeed Lee. Paladino said Wednesday he is not planning to run.
Some recent New York scandals have been huge and historic, like Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s resignation in 2008 after evidence surfaced that he had patronized a prostitution ring. Others have been smaller but similarly tawdry, such as the conviction of former Democratic state Sen. Hiram Monserrate last year for beating up his girlfriend.
Spitzer’s successor, Democrat David Paterson, was mired in controversies of his own, such as improperly accepting tickets to the 2009 World Series and intervening in a domestic violence case involving a close aide. Paterson escaped criminal charges in both instances, but paid a large fine for taking the baseball tickets.
Following a drunken driving arrest in 2008, Republican Rep. Vito Fossella, a married father of three, was forced to acknowledge he had fathered a daughter with a mistress. Fossella, who had represented the New York City borough of Staten Island in Congress since 1997, declined to run for re-election.
The most visible recent New York political scandal involved Democratic Rep. Charles Rangel, the former House Ways and Means Committee chairman and dean of the state’s congressional delegation. Rangel was censured by the House last year after being found guilty of violating several ethics rules, including renting multiple rent-stabilized apartments in New York’s Harlem neighborhood and using congressional stationery to solicit donations for a college center bearing his name. Rangel denied any wrongdoing and was re-elected last November, but the scandal and publicity surrounding it did not help national Democrats as they tried — unsuccessfully — to defend their majority in the House.
John McLaughlin, a national Republican pollster who has worked for many New York candidates, said the state’s changing demographics may have given rise to a new culture of political scandal in the state.
“For years, you had a certain level of middle-class folks who were traditionally ethnic, Catholic and Jewish in New York state. Then, you had your share of political corruption but now you have moral corruption, too,” McLaughlin said.
But some constituents in Lee’s district said they didn’t consider his downfall a New York state of mind, rather a consequence of celebrity that can infect politicians from any state.
“People in power do the darnedest things. I really don’t know what they’re thinking,” said Bob Dickinson, 65, of Clarence Center.