Politics & Policy

Ethics Grimier Than The Turnpike

My home state appears intent on defining itself as America's moral cesspool.

Did you ever think you would see the day when The Sopranos were the most morally upstanding citizens of New Jersey?

Back when the investigation of Sen. Bob Torricelli–a Democrat, not that the national media mentioned this much–was at its peak, I was covering Washington for the Bergen Record. I collected a slew of comments and asked some political analysts and figures about the Garden state’s reputation for corruption.

“Torricelli is a survivor, and New Jersey voters seem to tolerate politicians with shaky ethical judgments,” said Jack Torry, Washington correspondent for the Columbus (Ohio) Dispatch, told the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call.

Dave McConnell, a congressional correspondent for Washington-based WTOP Radio, agreed.

“His improper gift-taking from a political donor sparked a tough response from his Senate colleagues, but New Jersey voters are used to political corruption,” McConnell said [to Roll Call]. “Let’s face it, by now, after a string of scandals involving corporate fraud, stonewalling on sexual misconduct by Catholic Church leaders and top athletes on steroids, these folks may be numb to scandals.”

“We are a northeastern state that was built by political machines,” said Cliff Zukin, head of Rutgers’ Eagleton Institute. “It’s a pay-to-play state, meaning, if you don’t make contributions, you don’t get contracts. There’s some truth to it. Where it breaks down is that even though we may be more tolerant of it, we don’t prefer it, and the fact that the Senate race looks very, very even tells you that it bothers a lot of people.”

“We are the home of ‘The Sopranos’ and we lead the country in mayors in prison,” said Rider University political analyst David Rebovich. “New Jerseyans recognize politics is a rough and tumble business, and that some politicians skate close to the line and sometimes they cross it. To put it in theological terms, for voters in New Jersey, all politicians are fallen and so they want to look at the whole picture before they make a judgment.”

A Star-Ledger/Eagleton-Rutgers poll conducted in June found that most New Jerseyans believe political corruption is common in the state and elected officials mostly look out for themselves. One-third of the poll’s respondents said there is “a lot” of political corruption in New Jersey, and 51 percent said there is “some.” Most also said New Jersey is no better or worse than any other state.

The perception that all politicians are corrupt infuriates Dick Zimmer, a former GOP congressman from Flemington who lost to Torricelli in the 1996 Senate race.

“This is an issue that really pi** me off,” Zimmer said. “Being born and bred in New Jersey, it makes me very angry when we’re described as a state that’s more corrupt than most and has more tolerance for corruption than most. There have been periods of time when there’s been a lot of corruption, but we had a series of strong U.S. attorneys–often appointed by Republicans–that changed that image for a while. But when you have any number of mayors still serving time, it’s not an easy case to make to colleagues from out of state.”

Mind you, since those interviews were conducted in August 2002, the state has seen:

‐Torricelli suddenly drop out of his race for reelection.

‐Dozens of national newspaper columnists and pundits compare Torricelli to Tony Soprano, including Newsweek political columnist Jonathan Alter , concluding that “Tony is a depressed killer and Torricelli a brainy public servant. Still, the comparison does not always favor the senator.”

‐A last minute, legally challenged switch to put the Torch’s old rival, Frank Lautenberg, on the ballot.

‐Lautenberg win by a sizeable margin, 53.8 percent to 44 percent.

‐A fundraiser for Gov. Jim McGreevey, David D’Amiano, get indicted on federal charges July 6, of extorting $40,000 in political donations and bribes from a farmer negotiating with the state.

‐Charles Kushner, the top donor to McGreevey’s 2001 campaign for governor and a big donor to Sen. Jon Corzine, was charged with hiring a call girl to obstruct a federal investigation of him and his companies. Prosecutors allege Kushner paid the call girl $25,000 to videotape her having sex with a witness cooperating in a grand jury probe of his taxes and donations, and planned to have the video tape sent to the witness’ wife.

‐Kushner agreed to pay $508,900 to the Federal Election Commission to settle charges that he made improper donations to campaigns, including the 2000 presidential bid of Bill Bradley, a former New Jersey senator. Kushner used 40 partnerships he controlled to make more than $500,000 in donations to candidates and political groups from 1997 through 2000, according to the commission. Kushner recently joined Corzine in an unsuccessful bid to buy the New Jersey Nets of the National Basketball Association.

‐McGreevey’s first nominee for police superintendent, Joseph Santiago, had a criminal record for assault and was forced to step aside. His unusual choice to coordinate New Jersey’s antiterrorism efforts, Golan Cipel, was ineligible because he wasn’t an American citizen–he’s Israeli. (Cipel is allegedly filing sexual-harassment lawsuit against McGreevey.)

‐Now McGreevey has announced his resignation and acknowledged that he had an extramarital affair with another man. In addition, there is a rumor McGreevey was caught by a police officer while having sex in a Woodbridge lounge when he was the city’s mayor, and that the officer in question hasn’t worked as a cop since.

Years ago, Dennis Miller did a joke: “Steven Adler has been kicked out of [the hell-raising heavy metal band] Guns and Roses… Just what the [heck] do you have to do to get kicked out of Guns and Roses? Join a Bible study group?”

Well, now appears to be the time to ask, just what the heck does a Democrat have to do to get voted out of office in New Jersey? Since Jim Florio raised taxes and lost his reelection bid in 1993, it hasn’t happened. Might have happened if Torricelli or McGreevey tried to run for reelection, but we’ll never know.

I grew up in Metuchen, smack in the middle of a state that appears intent on defining itself as America’s moral cesspool.

The problem isn’t that the state is dominated by Democrats–Bill Bradley was a smart, likeable liberal senator–it’s that the place is dominated by phenomenally corrupt Democrats. (By the way, back in 2001, Acting Governor Donald DiFrancesco, a Republican, withdrew from the governor’s race following months of media reports detailing a series of questionable personal loans and business deals. Of course, ordinary bribery looks pretty mild right now.)

But in the past few years, as high-profile scandal after high-profile scandal has piled up, there has been no sign that the state’s voters are even considering punishing the Democratic party for nominating one self-serving unethical jerk after another. Until a few recent polls showed Bush close (and the most recent one has Kerry up by 20 points), New Jersey appeared to be turning into one of the bluest states.

This cavalcade of scandal appears to have not made a dent in the state’s perception of which party it prefers.

This reflects badly on everybody. The state’s Democrats, who can’t seem to find a figure not tied to a scandal themselves, or one of their top fundraisers. The state’s Republicans look incompetent, unable to come close to beating a bunch of crooks. And the voters look like they’ve got no standards whatsoever for behavior in office.

It’s great that local prosecutors keep nailing these officeholders. But it would be even better if some day the voters would “whack” one of these guys at the ballot box.


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