OP/ED Special Relativity in Politics




More than 500 years ago the Catholic Popes were known to use their authority to place their relatives in positions of power. Because Popes were celibate the most common beneficiaries of their genetic clout were their nephews. For example, in the 15 th century Pope Callixtus II appointed his nephew, Rodrigo, to be a cardinal. Rodrigo would later become Pope Alexander VI. Because of this tradition the Latin word for nephew, nepos, evolved into the word we use today to describe familial favoritism: nepotism. Unfortunately, political power in America today remains as abused by nepotism as it was in medieval Catholicism.

Nepotism has a rich tradition in American politics, dating back to the Adams family. Franklin D. Roosevelt relied on his distant relationship with Theodore Roosevelt in promoting his candidacy for Governor of New York and for the Presidency. President Kennedy used his power to appoint his brother, Robert,
Attorney General and to appoint his brother-in- law, Sargent Shriver, as director of the Peace Corps. Kennedy’s election as Senator and President was certainly benefited by his father’s status as Ambassador to the Court of St. James and as head of the SEC. Joe Sr.’s descendants continue to inhabit political office, thanks to nepotism.


Nepotism is, prima facie, un-American. The Declaration of Independence rejected the King’s inherited right to “absolute despotism”. The Constitution created a system of checks and balances to prevent the types of abuses all too familiar in hereditary monarchies. And yet, we seem to have an almost atavistic proclivity to regress to a system debased by inherited power.

The election of George W. Bush as President could certainly be considered a prime example of contemporary nepotism. It is unlikely that Bush would have been elected Governor of Texas and then President were it not for his father’s fame and connections. Yet, haters of President Bush shouldn’t gloat. Al Gore would not likely have been the Democratic nominee for President (nor a member of Congress, Senate or Vice-President) had it not been the case that his father, Al Gore, Sr. had served as the Senator from Tennessee.


Nepotism certainly isn’t egalitarian. One might believe that Andrew Cuomo is a capable Governor. But if his election had not been favored by the accomplishments of his father (the 52 nd Governor of New York) perhaps a more qualified citizen would have had the opportunity to serve. That favoritism necessarily excludes the political prospects for an otherwise deserved non-relative. Ironically, while serving as Attorney General, Andrew Cuomo alleged that State Senator Pedro Espada, Jr. had illegally engaged in nepotism by employing a relative as a special assistant. Espada was convicted in 2012 and sentenced to 5 years in jail.

Why, then, do we tolerate American nepotism? Certainly, voters could reject candidates whose principal qualifications are based on their genetics. Yet, we don’t. Perhaps we collectively long to reincarnate a venerable leader of the past. Or, perhaps, our frail psychology needs to believe in the possibility of a neo-religious political resurrection. Regardless of the roots in our collective consciousness, the permissive drive to facilitate nepotism is epidemic. Political dynasties are abundant even at the grassroots level in Rockland County. In Ramapo, Supervisor Christopher St. Lawrence rose to power on the legacy of his father, Senator Joseph St. Lawrence. Ramapo’s Ilan Schoenberger sits on the County Legislature while his wife, Rhonda, holds a Judgeship in the same town. In Clarkstown, Ken Zebrowski holds his father’s seat in the NY Assembly, while his sister, Kristen, is chair of the Rockland County Democratic Committee.

One might argue that the qualities that make a great leader could be inherited or taught such that the children of successful politicians are more likely to outperform their peers. However, such a theory violates common sense. Seth Stephens-Davidowitz calculates that the son of a U.S. Senator is 8,500 times more likely to become a Senator than his peers and the son of a U.S. President is 1.4 million times more likely to become president. Does it make sense that this benefit is determined by anything other than connections, money, and power?

More importantly, as a society America recognizes that using political power to helps one’s family is wrong. In New York, the Public Officer’s law (§73.14 (a) )specifically prohibits nepotism: No statewide elected official, state officer or employee, member of the legislature or legislative employee may participate in any decision to hire, promote, discipline or discharge a relative for any compensated position at, for or within any state agency, public authority or the legislature.


This law, of course, does not prohibit the free election of a relative. But, the more important point is the reason for the law: nepotism can lead to preferential treatment, patronage and misuse of office and it is bad for morale and public trust because it makes government look like a family business. Nepotism is, by definition, exclusionary.

Now we find ourselves on the verge of electing the wife of a former President as the next American President. Hillary Clinton may be qualified on her own merits, but who can deny that her nomination would have occurred had she not been married to Bill Clinton? What are the chances an average citizen would have been elected to the U.S. Senate having moved to New York just a year or two prior to the election? Hillary Clinton is as much a product of nepotism as Rodrigo.

On June 22, 1692 Pope Innocent XII issued a Papal Bull officially prohibiting the elevation of more than one papal relative to become a cardinal. Innocent XII recognized the danger and damage caused by nepotism. While the Catholic Church sensibly progressed from this practice almost 325 years ago, America seems to be unable or unwilling to similarly evolve.



-Jeffrey Oppenheim, M.D. is a neurosurgeon and the former mayor of Montebello, New York.