Since the beginning of this year, the media has been dominated by stories about corruption by public servants. There have been four headline-grabbing trials to date, and at least three more are coming. No level of government has been immune, from the governor’s office down to key local officials. For the average citizen, these continuing developments further erode respect for all public officials.
Having been a public servant for more than 30 years, I can’t help but ask, What were these people thinking when they deliberately broke the law in dozens of different ways? We live in an era when almost no corrupt act, big or small, goes undetected. Are some of our elected officials so drunk with power or jaded that they accept the smallest favors just because they think they can get away with it? Is a free trip, or tickets to a luxury sports box, worth losing your career?
The saddest part of the constant drip-drip-drip of corruption and prosecutions is the fact that it fails to deter others from doing the same thing. The idea that taking a bribe will go undetected is a form of arrogance that is hard to fathom. There’s no doubt that elected officials in low-paying jobs can be tempted to step over the line. The salary for a state legislator, $79,500, hasn’t changed since 1998, and that creates all types of the wrong temptations.
The awarding of public contracts is one of the most tainted processes I can think of. It’s not hard to find some successful company that has given a major campaign contribution just before winning a coveted contract. Not only is this wrong, but many a qualified owner of a business, big or small, is shut out because he or she isn’t able to pay to play. Why would respected international companies, with smart executives, give a lawyer like Michael Cohen millions of dollars in the foolish hope that he can get them access to President Trump? In 2018, trying to pay off some friend of a friend is an act of corporate suicide. Maybe it works in third-world countries, but not in America anymore.
We’ve arrived at a turning point in American politics. Across the country, hundreds of new and exciting candidates are opting to run for office. Despite the sacrifice and abuse that comes with these jobs, men and women from every walk of life are deciding to challenge the system, in some cases taking on entrenched politicians. The other good news is that a record number of women in male-dominated governments, like the state of Pennsylvania, are seeking public office.
Most people who follow politics focus on public officials, but there’s another group that needs to clean up its act. The people who run for public office don’t get to those positions without being chosen by some political leader. The party leaders are often just as much to blame when a candidate of their choice gets into criminal trouble. Party leaders sometimes spend little or no time vetting their candidates, choosing instead to pick some misfit who they hope will stay out of trouble.
There are no formal training programs for new candidates, other than things like weekend retreats. It’s time for party leaders to recognize that programs are needed to help educate political novices on the responsibilities of their jobs and the penalties for wrongdoing. Based on our current climate, elected officials also need to be schooled in workplace harassment and the basics of interacting civilly with others.
In the months and years ahead, many of today’s public officials will leave office voluntarily or involuntary. They will be opening the door to a new crop of elected officials who could someday make a positive contribution to their constituents and their communities with the right training. Sadly, there’s no way to implant a moral compass, because either they have one or they don’t. But it is clearly time for a better political system that produces better public servants. We can’t afford to repeat the current horror scene in this state and throughout the country.
Jerry Kremer was a state assemblyman for 23 years, and chaired the Assembly’s Ways and Means Committee for 12 years. He now heads Empire Government Strategies, a business development and legislative strategy firm. Comments about this column? JKremer@liherald.com.