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Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Structuring Corruption

The first condition that Wikipedia lists for being favorable for political corruption is "Concentration of power in decision makers who are not practically accountable to the people." Well, let's look at the New Jersey state government for an example of how that can be pulled off.

First of all, New Jersey has one of the most powerful Governor positions in the United States. Unlike most states, there is no other state-wide election for such positions as Secretary of State, Attorney General, or State Treasurer and there isn't even a position of Lieutenant Governor. In cases where the Governor isn't able to fulfil his (or her) duties, the State Senate President becomes "acting Governor". But wait, there's more - to "act" as the Governor, the State Senate President doesn't even have to leave his post in the State Senate. So, you have the head of the state legislature who is also the chief executive of the state - in other words, it's very much like having a state Parliament.

But this is supposed to be the exception to the rule. Power is generally not given to the Senate President. The Governor's powers are thus limited by his time in office and the powers granted by the New Jersey State Constitution. Well, in Jersey, like most states, the Governor serves a four year term. This gives him (or her) carte blanche to hand out jobs to political favorites (see Golan Cipel. The list of people the Governor of New Jersey appoints is staggering - the Constitution of the State of New Jersey limits the executive to twenty direct-report appointees, including the Secretary of State and the Attorney General. Beyond that, every single "board, commission, or other body" has every member appointed by the Governor, as well as any openings in the judicial system. In fact, just about the only thing the Governor of New Jersey can't do is to investigate a member of the State Legislature.

Technically, of course, this is all with the "advise and consent" of the State Senate. However, no one that I have talked to can remember the New Jersey State Senate refusing to allow anyone to take any position given by the Governor. There is a long history, however, of complaining that every appointment - whether it is from Democrats or Republicans - is due to bossism and political patronage. Of course, everyone is generally right. They are just complaining that THEIR bosses and patrons are not being picked.

Normally, a politician is kept in line - somewhat - by the fear of re-election. Well, New Jersey holds a gubernatorial election every four years - in odd years when there is no other election going on. The result is that somewhere between a third and a half of registered voters - which make up only a slight majority of adults in the Garden State - even vote for their Governor. In such apathetic conditions, it is not difficult to avoid accountability. You don't need to fool half of the people - you only need to fool about twenty percent of them.

Beyond elections, citizens depend on the "fourth estate" to enforce public oversight of their government officials. Unfortunately, New Jersey gets its television news from either New York City (in the North and Eastern parts of the state) and Philadelphia (in the South and Western parts of the state). Tony Soprano could run for office here and never get a whimper of protest from television.

The newspapers in New Jersey have a reputation for being rather partisan - due in part to the strict geographical split in the support of the two parties. The suburban and urban northeast part of the state - Hudson, Essex, and Bergen counties - are reliably Democratic. The newspapers in these areas - the Star Ledger and the Bergen Record - tend to reflect the attitudes of their readers. That means, whether intentionally or not, they are usually a bit lighter on reporting on the dark spots in the Democratic Party (in my opinion). If you want to find out the dirt on the Dems, you read the Asbury Park Press.

As with television, though, the real force of the newspapers is dominated by New York City. For much of Hudson County, the New York Times is pretty much the same thing as a local newspaper. Those who don't like the Times will pick up the New York Post or Daily News as quickly - or quicker - than they will the Star-Ledger satellite, the Jersey Journal.

Yep. There's no such thing as public accountability. Especially in Hudson and Essex counties when Democrats control the state government and they don't have to worry about the state Attorney General launching an investigation.

Concentrated power, no oversight. It's a recipe for corruption that New Jersey has brewed up time after time after time. It's a recipe that is repeated at the county and city levels ad naseum.

It has to stop. It's time for some sunshine in the Garden State.

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