The ARC of PACs and the new world domain of ‘Public’ Debate

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Jolted – at least on paper – by the indictment of a U.S. Senator, the State of New Jersey nevertheless plods along almost without acknowledgement of the event. Senator smenator seems to be the collective yawn from those masses of working stiffs convinced after years of observation that New Jersey politics synonymously connotes corruption.

Given the power of the office and in particular the power of this U.S. Senator, one might anticipate a great public debate by elected officials on the subject at hand. But instead, That’s news, an exasperated soap opera viewer tweeted in response to the interruption of her show by ABC to report on the indictment on 14 counts of corruption of U.S. Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ).

Most elected officials stayed away from the fray.

That is, regrettably, unsurprising. Public debates are scare in New Jersey, the stuff of folklore in the annals of statehouse politics, more likely now to surface in a Seton Hall Law School symposium run by former Assemblyman Fred Caraballo than on the floor of the state capitol.

By the end of the week, Menendez’s allies burnished a large list of fellow Democrats proclaiming solidarity with the embattled senator. Yet a close examination of those statements reveals no deep or especially thoughtful summoning of allegiance or Mark Antony-like rampart rhetoric. Most simply echo the common refrain that Menendez is innocent until proved guilty.

So were a lot of people.

But this is a U.S. Senator we’re talking about here, and one whose record vaults him well above the ordinary somnolence of too many federal officeholders. Like their cross-the-aisle counterparts, Republicans stayed mostly silent, refusing to go out of their way to entertain the topic of Menendez under indictment.

Through much paralysis of public elocution, two entities did, however, emerge with strong partisan statements on the subject.

Predictably, given the trajectory of post Citizens United politics, those statements came from independent expenditure PACs (political action committees) in no surrender email blasts. A group calling itself the Empowerment PAC headed by one Brian Goldberg (a U.S. Senate candidate unceremoniously gonged last year by Jeff Bell), called for Menendez to give up his seat. Descrying an “entitlement mentality” evident in the indictment, Goldberg said in a statement, “By stepping down from his position as ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Menendez has himself acknowledged the negative impact these charges have on his ability to represent the citizens of New Jersey. In order to avoid further and prolonged distraction, the Senator needs to immediately resign and allow the people of New Jersey to elect a new, unimpaired Senator to provide the strong, effective representation we require in Washington.”

There’s no gray area or room for nuance in the statement. Goldberg has a simple demand: resign.

Then there’s LUPE-PAC, an entity that raises money for Hispanic candidates running for elected office. The head of the PAC is a woman named Noemi Velazquez, who didn’t say anything innocent until proved guilty. Menendez is innocent, she said.

“The members of LUPE PAC stand with Senator Menendez and believe in his innocence,” Velazquez said.

When PolitickerNJ pointed out to an insider that only the two PACs on opposite sides of the issue had made bold declarative statements about the case, the source shrugged and said the reason for that is because “people in glass houses shouldn’t throw rocks.”

But we see something more insidious at work.

Pay attention to this moment, New Jersey.

By expanding corporate power over the outcome of politics, Citizens United simultaneously diminished the expectation of individual voices within the public process. In conjunction with a depleted news media and fewer reporters around to ask hard questions, what that means, or where that leads is to a terrifying brave new world wherein PACs do the talking and issue the heavy-handed partisan statements, leaving elected officials to keep their hands down – lest they get them blown off – and conduct their own transactions in unfettered peace.

This is a dangerous trend.

We understand the key role the fourth estate plays in this vacuum. But the fact that there is a vacuum goes to the overall lack of outrage, a condition never far from Pink Floyd’s worst nightmares. It’s the very condition that Pericles warned about in Thucydides’ treatment of The Peloponnesiasn War: “We do not say that a man who takes no interest in politics is a man who minds his own business; we say that he has no business here at all.”

It’s a variation on the idea that those disengaged from politics help facilitate an atmosphere where politics turns on them.

Here we stand, New Jersey, in between the federal indictment of a U.S. Senator and the prospective federal indictment of allies close to the governor of this state. We need more than the clashing of PACs blurting pro and con statements. We need elected officials, human beings, speaking to that terrible disconnect between the lives of real people and their government, and to that gulf between the savage burdens of most people and the perceived amenities of those they choose in apparent populist good faith to represent them.

The ARC of PACs and the new world domain of ‘Public’ Debate