What is it about New Jersey politics that glorifies the crooked by welcoming those booted from office back into smoke-filled rooms? The latest example comes from Passaic County where convicted felon and former Republican Party county chair, Peter Murphy (Federal Bureau of Prisons Register Number: 12677-050), looks to want back in, hence an effort to amend local party by-laws to remove having a felony conviction as a disqualification from serving in a party office.
Because I don’t believe in coincidences, the release of a new YouGov poll that shows New Jersey is the least liked, most unfavorably viewed state in the country, and the only state with net negative rating, doesn’t come as a surprise. No matter how the editorial board at The Star-Ledger whitewashes the bad news in its usual unctuous and condescending fashion – “our glorious, 127-mile shoreline” – the net, net is that America thinks this place is a joke, and a dirty one at that. Letting Murphy back into the political process even for a New York-nano second is symptomatic of why.
Even the people who live here don’t want to live here. New Jersey continues to lead the league in people wanting to quit the state to go somewhere, anywhere else.
Reported by Max Pizarro at PolitickerNJ.com, the Passaic County situation is astounding. Not only was Murphy convicted of a felony, but it was a felony involving a breach of public trust where he used his position as the de facto boss of Passaic County government – he ran the Republican Party, the Republican Party then ran Passaic County – to cause a contractor to distribute kickbacks to county officials he appointed. Per The New York Times:
(Murphy’s) trial, which lasted nearly six weeks, featured testimony from former top public officials giving details on a pervasive pattern of corruption, kickbacks and no-show jobs in the county, in which Mr. Murphy was said to be the undisputed but unelected boss for much of the 1990’s when Republicans controlled the Passaic County government. Democrats took control in 1998.
And somebody has the temerity, the utter and unabashed gall, to want this guy back in any position of public trust anywhere in the state, let alone heading the Passaic County Republican Party? You’re kidding, Max – right?
Those who read my posts on a regular basis know that I’m not from these parts. I come from a place far, far away that I still regard as “home.” I came to Jersey from my beloved Pacific Northwest for love, and my wife came here from her beloved Atlanta for professional reasons. When it’s time for us to retire, it’s back to the “old country” we’ll go where the air,
Bemused over the bizarre state of Passaic County affairs, I consulted a friend whose insider knowledge of Jersey politics far exceeds mine. My friend explained it to me thusly:
He’s the most effective person in Passaic County. He has every quality (conviction aside) that every chairman should have but doesn’t. I don’t know what they are doing there, but when you have a Republican Chairman whose only focus is gay pride and nothing else, I’d choose the convicted felon over him in a heartbeat – plus that was 15 years ago, and he went to jail protecting others. Pete loves this party and he can get things done with a snap of his finger.
With all due respect to my friend’s insight, where I come from you don’t catch a king salmon using a busted beer bottle as bait (Best to use plug-cut herring with a flasher in a downrigger setup). And you sure as hell don’t let a guy who once looted you back into the place so he can do it again, and I don’t care if he does have what “every chairman should have but doesn’t.”
There’s a reason New Jersey is nicknamed “The Soprano State,” and it’s not because of the coloraturas and mezzos in residence.
Gov. Chris Christie made his political bones going after corrupt local and state officials, one of whom was the aforementioned Peter Murphy, where the field was ripe for the harvest. But even he’s not immune. In the run up to a second term, he was enmeshed in the cheesy, frat-prank Bridgegate scandal, less because he personally did anything wrong and more because a few underlings went off the reservation to play dirty tricks that even Watergate’s Donald Segretti, the Committee to Re-Elect the President (“CREEP”) staffer who went to jail for playing political pranks, would have thought bush league in the extreme.
There’s more. The next in what seems like an endless line of Democratic U.S. senators from New Jersey to either be run out of office ignominiously, like former Sen. Robert “The Torch” Torricelli in 2002, or sent to prison on corruption charges, like former Sen. Harrison Williams in 1982, is Sen. Robert “Hudson Bob” Menendez, who has been indicted on a litany of corruption charges that make Williams’ pale by comparison. His demise is but a matter of time. And then there’s former Senator and former Gov. Jon Corzine, but the less said about him the better.
Compared to other states, New Jersey’s record of crooked public officials tops the charts hands down.
The only New Jersey politico driven from office who has the proper post-boot attitude is former Democratic Gov. Jim McGreevy. He didn’t plot his political return the day he resigned from office, but instead took up a life of genuine public service working with ex-offenders. Kudos to him because that’s how penance is done.
A lot of people in the state take pride in all of this as if it’s a badge of honor – a crazy Jersey thing like refusing to pump your own gas or going out of your way to mangle the English language. Maybe it’s funny and entertaining when Tony Soprano does it on TV, but when it happens in real life, people get hurt, it’s damned expensive and we all suffer as a result.
In my home state of Washington there is none of this. No elected official has been found guilty of a crime of any type in 35 years, since the top two Democrats in the Legislature were convicted of gambling-related influence peddling in 1980. Admittedly, the elected state auditor, Troy Kelley, also a Democrat, is currently under indictment on a host of federal tax-evasion and false-statement charges, but they stem from behavior alleged to have taken place well before he was elected to statewide office. Still, Kelley has nobody in his corner. From the Democratic governor, every statewide elected official (including the Democratic attorney general), the Legislature, leaders of both the Democratic and Republican Parties, every editorial board in the state and the guy who sweeps up the place at night are demanding he resign, be impeached, be recalled or whatever it takes to get him out of office. The entire state is furious and livid that he didn’t quit office the instant the news broke that he was under investigation by federal authorities, and certainly upon his indictment, instead taking an unpaid leave of absence effective May 1 of this year.
Now he’s frozen out as if he was never there in the first place. The state auditor’s office is functioning without him, state government moves on without him and he’s become an overnight non-person shunned by everyone irrespective of party, public status or political persuasion. Not only is there no tolerance for corruption, there’s no tolerance for tolerance of it.
But Washington state isn’t unique in the Northwest. Early this year, former Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber, a Democrat, was unmercifully hounded from office due to a public corruption scandal involving his live-in girlfriend. Like Kelley, Kitzhaber went from being the most to being toast overnight. From beginning to end, it took but four months to uncover the facts and force his resignation, with his political base of support in the Democratically-controlled Legislature utterly collapsing in just one week.
The PNW insistence upon clean government doesn’t stop odious conduct, however. During my time as an investigative and political writer and reporter for The Freedom Foundation, a right-of-center think tank, I played a key part in ousting a hard-core, left-wing state representative who had a peculiar penchant for smacking around his wife. There is no place in public life for a wife beater, and his constituents tossed him out on his ear. Maybe Essex County Democrats ought to do the same to their chair, Leroy Jones, who may not smack his wife around, but has no qualms about wailing on a legally blind, twice-his-age, 75-year-old veteran who had the temerity to disagree with him over a political matter. Watch the altercation and a news report about it here.
Jones has defended sucker-punching the older man, but not enough to prevent, according to news reports, East Orange police from charging him with misdemeanor assault, which the victim wants upgraded to a felony.
This incident allegedly took place in early June, yet a Google search reveals no demands from Essex County Democrats that Jones quit his party post, seek anger-management counseling or otherwise be held accountable for his behavior. Do Essex County Democrats value the skills of a brawler and bully in their leadership? You have to wonder.
The political woods in New Jersey are full of this stuff, from a chiseling GOP chair in South Jersey stealing from nursing home residents, to a cop with multiple DUIs on his record who kept his job until he allegedly caused two fatalities while again driving drunk, to two Jersey City officials getting busted for DUIs in a short span of time – after awhile, it starts to add up.
Ordinarily, you’d say, “There ought to be a law,” but in most instances there already is – most definitely there should be a one-and-done law for police found guilty of a DUI. But laws get ignored, offenses routinely go unpunished and, here’s where it really rubs, there’s little to no public outrage of the torch, pitchfork and hot-tar nature.
Behavior like this shouldn’t ever happen among public servants. Ending it is a function of how they’re selected, insisting upon candidates with impeccable character and a solid sense of what public service is about and putting an end to cronyism and tolerance policies that breed criminality and throwing punches as an excepted way of doing business.
Sure, where I’m from they once had such problems. Seattle had a serious police scandal over a tolerance policy for gambling in the late 1960’s and early 70’s, but an aggressive U.S. attorney, a crusading newspaper and a citizenry that demanded action and prosecutions put an end to it with nothing even close to it since.
I could propose a litany of reforms that I won’t catalog here, though one, the initiative and referendum process, New Jerseyans desperately need in order to check governmental abuse and corruption. For over 100 years, Washington state citizens have used it to check corrupt special interests, initially railroads and, more recently, big government and those dependent upon it. Maybe the best public records and open public meetings laws in the country, campaign finance disclosure, restrictions on political parties and a fanatically zealous insistence upon clean elections didn’t come about because the Legislature wanted them – the people demanded them, took power into their own hands and self-legislated. The politicians, special interests and powers that be were bent to the will of the people, not the other way around.
Most of what I do advocate involves breaking up concentrated power and spreading it around to as many people and places as possible, and, whenever possible, returning it directly to the people, whose state this is supposed to be.
When the PEOPLE control the process and can implement reforms at the ballot box, my experience is that you get a far superior outcome. And you get a state that outsiders look upon with respect.
And no whining about “second chances.” When it comes to official corruption and a betrayal of the public trust, you get one strike and then it’s a political and public-service death penalty. Asking for a second corrupt bite at the apple insults the people you were supposed to, but didn’t, serve and the democratic process itself.
Tell me, which system do you prefer – one in which the corrupt are like yo-yos that keep coming back, or one where it’s one corruption-strike and you’re out forever and ever with no amen?