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Scandals And Voters

by Susan Reefer, May 01, 2002
 

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The mood of the electorate this year is, according to the wisdom of pollsters and political strategists, surprisingly upbeat, if understandably cautious. Nationally and in New York State, it looks as though most Americans may decide to stick with the team that is in place. But there have been some recent local developments that may turn this wisdom upside down, not just for individual races but for the whole election season.

The developments have to do, in a word, with scandals.

There has been scandal in the church, scandal in the Brooklyn judiciary, and scandal among property tax assessors. The scandals most likely to affect this year's elections are the corruption charges against two politicians.

Earlier this month, State Senator Guy Velella was formally indicted for bribery, charges that have been under investigation for two years. Velella, whose district includes part of The Bronx, is a member of the Republican State Senate majority, and is considered to be one of the most powerful senators in the New York City delegation.

Earlier this year, Democratic City Councilmember Angel Rodriguez was accused of taking bribes in exchange for his vote of approval on pending city projects.

Graft and corruption in city politics is nothing new. Around the turn of the last century, a Tammany Hall ward boss named George Washington Plunkett gave a series of "very plain talks on very practical politics." Among the wisdom he imparted were these words:

Everybody is talkin' these days about Tammany men growin' rich on graft, but nobody thinks of drawin' the distinction between honest graft and dishonest graft. There's all the difference in the world between the two. Yes, many of our men have grown rich in politics. I have myself. I've made a big fortune out of the game, and I'm getting' richer every day, but I've not gone in for dishonest graft-blackmailin' gamblers, saloonkeepers, disorderly people, etc.-and neither has any of the men who have made big fortunes in politics. There's an honest graft, and I'm an example of how it works. I might sum up the whole thing by sayin': "I seen my opportunities and I took 'em."

That distinction may or may not have been true one hundred years ago, and it may or may not be true today. Most people would probably make a distinction between the perks an elected official might enjoy, and outright bribery. After all, our New York state senators, with an annual salary around $80,000, are well compensated, but most are still making less than they would in the private sector. In the research I've seen, despite a lot of tough talk, most voters are fairly tolerant of their own representatives unless it becomes clear that there was an outright abuse of power.

When there is an abuse of power, it tends to get the voters' attention, quickly. And not the kind of attention most candidates want.

A political scandal doesn't always mean the end of a political career; U.S. Senator Bob Torricelli (D-NJ) has dodged allegations almost as long as he's been in office, but he's survived both legally and politically, and is currently the frontrunner in his re-election campaign.

What it can do is affect the overall mood of the electorate during a campaign season. The 1994 Congressional elections, which marked the most sweeping changes in the national political landscape in 60 years, were precipitated by several events, but among the most significant were two major scandals: the House banking scandals, and the House post office scandal. Of course, some of the members who were implicated in those scandals survived that election, and some who were completely innocent of wrongdoing were thrown out of office. The specific allegations mattered, but what mattered more was the tone it set: the scandals sent a message that the current members were privileged, out of touch, entrenched, not to be trusted. "Better to get rid of all of them and start over," was the thinking; "Throw the Bums Out!" became the war cry.

There is little chance such a sweeping sentiment would be seen this year. The current scandals appear to be isolated, both from one another, and from state and city government as a whole.

But it also means that voters may not be quite so inclined to keep incumbents in power no matter what. When a city and a nation go through what we have been through, we turn to our leaders for wisdom and security and comfort. It's understandable if during those times, we sometimes confuse the authority of the office with the infallibility of the person.

A reminder that our leaders are only human and need to be constantly held accountable, while unfortunate, can be beneficial in a democracy. We have set elections not to reward good representatives, but to weed out the bad ones.

C.S. Lewis wrote in his essay, "Equality:" "A great deal of democratic enthusiasm descends from the ideas of people like Rousseau, who believed in democracy because they thought mankind so wise and good that everyone deserved a share in the governmentĆ’..The real reason for democracy isĆ’no man can be trusted with unchecked power over his fellows."

This has always been true. But this becomes more true, not less so, during times such as these.

Susan Reefer is a Republican pollster and media strategist. She is based in New York City.


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