This morning’s news out of northern New Jersey prompted far more questions than answers in our minds. For starters, a fundamental question: what’s up with New Jersey? Why, when it’s developed a nearly laughable reputation as a state rife with corruption, does corruption persist? Why haven’t efforts at reform worked? Do today’s arrests lead anyone to think that the state is finally, finally, on the straight and narrow? For answers, we checked in with a couple scholars who know lots about politics and ethics in the Garden State: Joseph Marbach, a dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Seton Hall University, and Brigid Harrison, a professor of politics and law at Montclair State.
Where did this culture of corruption start?
Marbach calls one of the most “persuasive and pervasive theories” that early immigrants to New Jersey and eastern Pennsylvania viewed the role of government differently than did their contemporaries in New England or the southern colonies. “They — collections of Dutch and English settlers — tended to look at government as just another service provider,” he says. In New England, the Puritan belief advocated that government should be a force for good, says Marbach, and in the south, government initially was small and its role was to protect the status quo. “But in this area, people got involved in politics because it was a career option, not necessarily because it was a higher calling. People who couldn’t become doctors or lawyers became politicians.” Marbach says that such an attitude helped create a culture of corruption in two ways. For starters, because politics was a career option and not something one did at the tail end of a successful career in law or business, politicians weren’t necessarily wealthy. “So a sense developed that a certain amount of graft was acceptable,” says Marbach. Secondly, the role of a politician simply became to distribute goods and services — not to build a better society or to protect the status quo — adds Marbach, and such goods and services became viewed as products to trade away.
Harrison adds that early attempts to rein in local corruption in other states never really took hold in New Jersey. “You had these counties where party bosses never really relinquished their power,” she says. “These modern corruption stories really have their grounding in those party machines.” Partly as a result of this reluctance to give up or consolidate power, says Marbach, New Jersey stayed incredibly fractured. Today, the state has 566 local municipalities, the second-most in the nation, behind Illinois. “We’ve got parkway commissions and special districts and each of these has an executive with authority and control over purse strings,” he says. “That’s a lot of opportunities for corruption and patronage.” Harrison calls them “mini-fiefdoms.” Have other, more contemporary forces played into the culture of corruption? Marbach says that New Jersey sometimes gets hidden in the shadows of New York and Philadelphia. “You don’t have a very strong media as watchdog,” he says. Nor, he adds, is the watchdog role played by opposition parties in a lot of areas. “Some counties are one-party-dominated towns,” he says. “This combination — lack of media oversight and lack of strong second party presence allows state officials in a lot of places to run amok.” Why haven’t law enforcement efforts been effective in cleaning things up? Both Marbach and Harrison say the state law-enforcement efforts have largely been ineffective because the attorney general in New Jersey is a political appointee, rather than a separately elected office, like it is in New York. “So we don’t get the crusading prosecutor, we don’t get the Eliot Spitzer that New York gets,” says Marbach. Marbach says that when the governor doesn’t make it a priority and really lean on his or her AG, the AG doesn’t do the same to lower-level prosecutors. “It filters down,” he says. “Those that are safeguarding the system are coming up through this system.” As a result, says Marbach, the state has largely relied on external law-enforcement forces, like the FBI and U.S. attorney’s office, to crack down.
Have we finally hit a tipping point here? Will people look at this and say ‘this has got to change.’ In other words, can today’s events and the fallout from them be used as a galvanizing force to finally clean things up? “Absolutely not,” says Harrison. She says that in New Jersey, there are two big bases of public power, the Hudson County Democrats and the Camden County Democrats. “It’s like the Mafia,” she says. “If you take out one family, the other family takes up more authority. Today’s events are likely an indicator that Camden County Democrats will probably be able to exert stronger power.” Additionally, she thinks the same dynamic that keeps the AG from going after corruption is largely at play with the state legislature. “The legislature is rooted in corruption and it’s the beneficiary of corruption. It’s hard to get reform or enforcement of the law because the vampries are in charge of the blood bank.” What was your reaction when you heard news of the arrests today? Says Harrison: “I think it’s sad because as someone who teaches young people about politics and at a time in which there seems to be a good deal of optimism surrounding public service, these headlines and behaviors are only going to usher in another dose of cynicism about public officials.” She adds: “I worry that the fallout from this, after a handful of officials pay the price is that people will say ‘yep, they’re all on the take. This is just another spoke in the wheel.’” Says Marbach: “I guess I feel disappointment and personally I’m saddened by it. This message of corruption and not tolerating corruption just doesn’t get through. It’s disheartening to think that efforts to clean this up are never going to be effective.”