My father ran for governor in 1973 on a platform of honesty in government, and New Jersey state government was pretty much scandal-free during his eight years in office. What accounts for the differences between now and then? I can point to a few things.
First, there was far less money in politics. Gubernatorial campaigns were far cheaper, even in inflation-adjusted dollars. Legislative and local campaigns back then cost a few thousand dollars, or less. Since there wasn’t the fundraising, there wasn’t the expectation on the part of vendors and other contributors of some sort of advantage or return on “investment” as there is today. It’s hard to put the genie back in the bottle, so we may never get money out of politics. But there are forms of public financing that could actually be cost-efficient and save lots of money in the long run by purging the system of the pernicious influence of money. The Clean Elections program now in place in certain legislative districts is a good start.
But campaign finance reform won’t stop money from passing under the table. There is more to do. We can have more rules, regulations and prohibitions; these are all objective standards. But we are ignoring the subjective element; ie, the setting of standards and expectations at the top. This is something that I think my father did extremely well. My father was not very popular with county chairmen because he made it clear that he was not about oiling their machines. That message was reinforced by the senior members of the governor’s staff.
People like my father and Woodrow Wilson were not natural selections of party bosses. They received backing largely because of political calculations that voters were in no mood to tolerate shoddy ethics. If polls show that voters are inured to corruption and willing to let it go unpunished, then party leaders will continue to push the nomination of people that they feel they can either control or profit from more directly. The influence of party leaders would be vastly diminished if more people would bother to vote in primaries. Better civics education in our schools could only help here.
Some of the answer is attracting good people into government service. In the past, corruption has involved appointed officials too. Gov. Corzine has attracted top-notch people like Brad Abelow and Gary Rose from Goldman Sachs, who have succeeded on Wall Street and want to give back. But other talented people may be put off by too much invasion of privacy, and conflict of interest rules that go beyond any rule of reason. We need to be mindful of unintended consequences as we pursue ethics reform. My father would be the first to agree. It is also important to promote people already in public service on the basis of competence, not seniority or politics. The appointment of Anne Milgram as attorney general strikes me as a good step in this direction.
Politicians are nothing if not responsive to political pressure. We can have honest government if we uphold our responsibility to vote in primaries as well as general elections, take the time to evaluate candidates, and perhaps even run ourselves when other alternatives aren’t working.