by David P. Rebovich
Bryant announced months ago that he would not seek reelection this fall. Perhaps he assumed that he would be indicted or that the well-publicized stories of his alleged “no show” jobs, pension padding, and self-serving influence peddling would haunt him during a campaign. Or, hurt his Democratic party by giving Republicans a powerful issue on which to run their campaigns statewide. Surely the once proud legislator would not want to be the poster-person for political corruption in this year’s legislative races. If that’s so, Bryant is well advised to resign his office immediately and allow his Democratic successor to get a jump start on the job and, frankly, on running away from Bryant’s legacy.
But Democrats generally may still have a hard time running from concerns about political corruption and government ethics. Four other legislators, all Democrats, have recently been subpoenaed by Christie’s office, including former Newark mayor and current Senator Sharpe James. These investigations may not lead to indictments and do not to the layperson seem to involve actions as serious as Bryant’s. Nonetheless, expect Republicans to continue to complain about a pattern of questionable behavior by Democrats ever since they regained power in the State House following the 2001 gubernatorial and legislative elections.
But making political corruption the centerpiece of a campaign in New Jersey is certainly no guarantee of success, unless you can prove that your opponent is corrupt. In the 2005 gubernatorial race, Doug Forrester tried to make Jon Corzine the big boss of the Democratic Party’s party’s machine and got swamped. In this generally blue state where legislative districts are drawn to be safe, it is unlikely that Republicans will pick up many seats this November by campaigning on a generic, anti-corruption platform. However, Republican legislators and the state party claim that self-serving behavior by the Democrats – think “Christmas tree” items and quid pro quo arrangements with major constituent groups – drive up property taxes.
That’s an argument that may well resonant with more people, at least intellectually. Whether voters will turn against an incumbent legislator, even a self-serving one, who takes care of constituents and his or her district is uncertain. After all, despite the rants of editorial writers, reformers and even Governor Corzine, most citizens who are served politicians under investigation or by dual office-holders do not seem to be too upset.
They are not as upset as some Democrats are at Christie’s investigations of legislators in their party. Trying to capitalize on the controversy surrounding U.S. General Alberto Gonzales for having eight U.S. Attorneys fired allegedly for prosecuting fellow Republicans, these New Jersey Democrats are suggesting that Christie is using his office for political purposes. Christie’s response is that he has successfully prosecuted several Republicans, including Essex County executive James Treffinger and a slew of local officials in Monmouth County.
Then there is the simple fact that Democrats have controlled the legislature and the governor’s office for the last three-plus years and thus control the budget and policy-making processes. If self-serving and potentially illegal behaviors occurs in the State House, it is likely to involve Democrats. That’s because the Republicans don’t have the power to help themselves, family members and campaigns donors.
What most disturbs Christie is something that should bother Democrats in the State House as well. It’s the fact that, as Christie put when announcing Bryant’s indictment, nobody was doing anything about politicians with no show jobs or who otherwise used their office for personal or family financial gain. In Bryant’s case, Christie expressed shock that no one involved in the state budget and policy processes realized that the one-time chair of the Senate Budget Committee was putting money in his pot and then refilling the pots, i.e., pushing for more appropriations to UMDNJ, Rutgers-Camden, and the Gloucester County Board of Social Services, from which he drew salaries.
It does seem implausible that no one would have known what Bryant was doing or at least asked questions about his new public sector jobs and requests for additional appropriations for the organizations that hired him. Politicians are typically concerned with who gets what, when, how and how much because they too are competing for scarce resources to fund their own preferred programs. And, they are also worried about what perceptions among the public may hurt them, their party, or others in their party.
The reason offered for legislators’ lack of vigilance over their own? Well, most complain that the state budget process ends in massive confusion. The typical lawmaker in both parties does not get to read a final budget document or have time to review the “Christmas tree ” items that are added to the budget just before they have to ratify the document. Responding to all the questions raised about Christmas tree items in the current budget, Governor Corzine admitted that he did not have enough time to carefully analyze the legislature’s budget before he exercised his life item veto and signed the document into law.
Both Codey and Corzine have called for making the budget process more transparent, and Joe Roberts, the Speaker of the General Assembly, supports this. The Governor also wants dual office-holding and pay to play banned at all levels of government. Republican legislators agree with him, but Corzine’s fellow Democrats are balking at supporting these reforms. On Friday, Republican legislators asked the Governor to call a special session of the legislature to discuss and hopefully pass strict ethics reforms, including suspending indicted public officials without pay and establishing an ethics commission staffed with private citizens.
Some Democrats, and maybe some Republicans, still believe that political corruption and government ethics are issues that concern editors, reporters and college professor a lot more than they do average citizens Legislators and citizens alike may change their minds if more public officials are indicted and the party in power is seen as failing to satisfy its big promise to provide long-term property tax reform. At an event at Rider University last Tuesday, Christie told a large audience that law enforcement officials need individual New Jerseyans to work with them to fight corruption by following public affairs carefully, getting involved in politics at the local level, and letting their public official officials know that they will be held accountable. The U.S. Attorney for New Jersey and that message received loud applause. Hopefully loud enough for lawmakers down the road in the State House to hear.
David P. Rebovich, Ph.D., is Managing Director of the Rider University Institute for New Jersey Politics (www.rider.edu/institute). He also writes a regular column, “On Politics,” for NEW JERSEY LAWYER and monthly reports on New Jersey for CAMPAIGNS AND ELECTIONS Magazine.