The longstanding New York tradition of "investments in legislators"

new york state senate chamber bw

Among the many paths used to influence in this chamber over history: "the society of young ladies."

By Carl Johnson

Andrew Cuomo and state legislative leaders are expected to officially announce a collection ethics reforms today. In a late Friday press conference about the deal, Cuomo called the proposals "tough and aggressive."

Advocates of legislative ethics reform can take pride in being part of a long tradition. Nothing is new under the sun -- and even less is new in the New York State legislature.

Hudson C. Tanner, official stenographer of the New York State Senate from 1876 to 1885, retired to the safe distance of Oswego and wrote a tell-all book of his experiences "with a view of creating a public sentiment strong enough to elect honest men to the Legislature."

The book, The Lobby and Public Men from Thurlow Weed's Time, is more than 400 pages of naming names and telling stories that illustrated the need for changes to the bribery law. His descriptions of lobbyists and legislators were more sly than cutting, but he got his point across just the same. For example, he said of one lobbyist that he "never speculated in stocks or grain, confining himself to permanent investments in legislators."

Tanner tells the story of a senator, unnamed, from the southeastern part of the state, "one of the ablest Senators New York State has had in the Legislature during the last 25 years," who was unalterably opposed to a bill the lobby wanted passed. Being an honest man, the lobby could not change his mind, and greatly feared his influence, believing his opposition in the chamber would carry the day.

But there are influences besides money, and so the lobby contrived to have the senator introduced to a young lady. "The only weakness the Senator had, if any, was for the society of 'young ladies'..."

On the day of the vote, "the couple were seen bowling out on Washington Avenue as the Senate was about to convene and it was soon known that they were out at Hurst's Hotel" -- an establishment located about where New Scotland Ave meets Whitehall Ave today (map), well away from the Senate chamber, and sitting down to a cocktails and dinner when he should have been preparing to vote. At some point the young lady dropped her pretense and, as Tanner tells it, "greeted him with her choicest Bowery vocabulary: 'You old duffer, if you dare go back and vote or speak against that Bill, I'll snatch what little hair is left on the top of your head and wipe the Delavan with you!'"

Perhaps fearing more what this "lady" might do to his reputation more than he feared being dragged about downtown's most prominent hotel by his hair, the Senator accepted defeat, and effective lobbying moved another piece of legislation.

"If the feast of corruption is to continue, the time will soon be at hand when the honest sentiment of the country may cry a halt!" Hudson Tanner wrote in 1888.

Carl Johnson writes about history and other fun stuff at Hoxsi.org and mynonurbanlife.com.

More Carl on AOA:
+ A future in plastics and billiard balls
+ The Moses fountain in Washington Park
+ The highway that was almost buried under Washington Park

photo: National Park Service via Wikipedia

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