A dose of imagination

Bergen County is apparently immune from the "change" bug that has swept the rest of the nation.

Not even a federal investigation and eight-count indictment could convince Bergen County Democrats to dump their long-time corrupt leader Joe Ferriero. Note how three Democrats responded to calls from other elected officials for their chairman to step down:

"Steve Rothman ought to know better…he knows the constitutional presumption of innocence." -Freeholder David Ganz

"Everybody's presumed innocent…" -Surrogate Michael Dressler

"We all have the presumption of innocence…" -Sheriff Leo McGuire

If this were college, they'd be expelled for plagiarism, but in Ferriero's Bergen County that kind of lemming-like ability to follow orders is demanded and rewarded. It's embarrassing to see these supposedly grown men get played like fiddles by the state's new poster boy for corruption, but they've been doing it for so long they don't know anything else.

It's only a matter of time until Ferriero is officially out of power, but that's not necessarily great news. Bergen Republicans seem incapable of capitalizing on their opponents' misfortune, which in turn creates little incentive for Democrats to change their ways. And when Democrats finally decide their future direction, my pessimistic bet is they'll go down the same route all over again. For 10 years, it's all they've known. Corruption and abuse has become synonymous with power and success.

The recent failure of the organization to rid itself of dead wood suggests there is little imagination to see beyond this failed paradigm.

But the good news is that the Ferriero ship is sinking, and just because some rats are burrowing deeper instead of jumping doesn't mean there aren't good people who value things like ethics and honesty above blind loyalty and hackery.

So let me offer a constructive suggestion to them as they look to the future, because there are better ways. They just might not know they're out there yet.

One radical approach to political success involves trying to "buy" votes by "selling" people your ideas and values and having them support you on the merits. Note that no jobs, graft or promise of either is exchanged in this transaction.

It's so idealistic that it couldn't possibly work, right?

In 2001, the U.S. Senate considered the McCain-Feingold campaign finance legislation that would ban the unlimited campaign contributions known as "soft money" from corporations, unions and individuals to campaign committees. Bob Toricelli's former spokesman Jim Jordan, who was then executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, warned that the legislation would "have a truly profound effect on the role and functions of the political parties and will thereby profoundly change, perhaps in some negative ways, electoral politics."

At the time, Democrats lagged far behind in terms of "hard money" contributions but were at parity with Republicans when it came to soft money. The flawed zero-sum logic presumed that banning soft money meant certain electoral defeat. Their prior reliance on the elite and powerful largely blinded them to other possibilities (sound familiar?). Luckily, the legislation passed anyway.

If anyone still believes that there isn't a better way to raise money and run a political operation, Barack Obama has a bridge in Alaska to sell you for $66 million.

Likewise, the presidential battleground in this election has expanded dramatically not by coincidence, but simply because it's being contested. It's not brain surgery, but it did go against the conventional political wisdom that stressed a focus on three or four states. Bergen County Democrats (and for that matter, Ocean County Republicans, and….) can do it, too at the county level, and with the help of the Internet, it's much easier than ever before.

Asking people for their support and convincing them that you have the right ideas is still a good political strategy. It's effective and more honorable than being corrupt. As an added bonus, it's also much less likely to get you arrested or indicted.

Juan Melli is Politicker.com's associate editor.

A dose of imagination