John Derbyshire, a transplant to my native Long Island, writes here of the palm-greasing, log-rolling, back-stabbing, and general grubbiness that pervade New York State politics, and the mediocrity and venality that characterize its practitioners — as seen most recently in Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s sordid hotel tryst, during which, like a true Albany hack, he used financial haggling as foreplay and spent an enormous amount of money in a vastly convoluted way on something he could have gotten much cheaper.
I’ve lived in New York State all my life, so in the normal course of events, I don’t notice these things. It’s like when we have summer guests at my parents’ house, and they appear at the breakfast table rubbing their eyes and say, “How can you sleep with all the noise from those crickets?” And we reply, “What crickets?” In similar fashion, for us Empire State lifers, the steady buzz of scandal and general oafishness emanating from up the Hudson River has long since faded into the background.
The trouble started way back in 1797, when the state capital was fixed permanently in Albany. Before then, the legislature had moved annually from place to place, meeting in Albany, Poughkeepsie, Kingston, and New York City. Eventually it became necessary to pick one place and stick with it, and the legislature chose Albany. There were many reasons, but the major one was to avoid concentrating too much power in the state’s biggest metropolis.
A lot of states have done similar things over the years. When I was in the fifth grade, Miss Rappe made us memorize all the state capitals, and it’s amazing how few of them anyone would ever have heard of otherwise: Pierre, Salem, Jefferson City, Montpelier . . . In most places, when a state government was organized, the collection of farmers and small-town lawyers who made up the territorial legislature got together and intentionally chose (or sometimes even created from scratch) a hick town far away from the temptations of the big city, where life would be pure and unsullied and opportunities for real-estate speculation would abound.
Another consideration was that the taxpayers didn’t want legislators to enjoy their jobs too much. If you spend all year plowing fields in Podunk, and then you get an expenses-paid trip to St. Louis or Omaha to transact the people’s business, naturally you’ll want to protract that business as long as possible. But if you’re stuck in the middle of nowhere, you’ll wrap it up as quickly as you can and get the hell out, and your scope for screwing things up will be limited accordingly.