It must have been some sight- Federal agents approaching a house, in the dark, on a cold Chicago morning, preparing to arrest the governor of Illinois and charge him in a sweeping criminal complaint. By the time Illinois residents arrived on their jobs they were learning of the scandal and faced with the prospect that yet another governor might be facing jail time. The sad truth is that for many residents of Illinois, and in states across the country, the arrest of Governor Blagojevich was hardly shocking news. Such behavior has become commonplace among many elected officials.
Political corruption is not unique to Democrats, Republicans or Independents, and it is color-blind, taking down elected officials of all races and ethnicities. And while it may be tempting to typecast the corrupt politician, across the country we have seen a wide variety of personalities fall victim to greed.
Still, the sting of corruption is all the more painful when Black elected officials who represent constituents who live on society’s edge are found to have abused their power. So while no race “owns” corruption, it certainly does seem to exact a higher price on the Black community given all of the challenges Blacks face in this nation.
The “Hall of Shame” seems to be endless and lately corruption appears to have reached epidemic stage among Black elected officials. Former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, once considered a rising star in Democratic politics, was convicted on two felony counts of obstruction of justice. In New Jersey former Newark Mayor Sharpe James, a political heavyweight in state politics, is in federal prison for abusing the power of his office in real estate transactions. Not to be outdone, former New Jersey State Senator Wayne Bryant, architect of the state’s welfare reform initiative that the Clinton administration borrowed, is headed to federal prison on 12 counts of selling his influence for personal gain. Former Atlanta Mayor Bill Campbell was given 30 months in prison for tax evasion. In Massachusetts, veteran State Senator Diane Wilkerson, a strong advocate for the Black community, is now facing criminal charges. Boston City Councilor Chuck Turner is also facing charges. Then there’s the case of Louisiana Congressman William Jefferson, who recently lost his seat to a Vietnamese-American in a 60% Black district, months after $90,000 in cash was found in his freezer. The former superintendent of the Prince George’s County school district, Andre Hornsby, was handed a six year prison term for receiving kickbacks on school contracts awarded to companies that employed his girlfriend. Just two weeks ago Birmingham Mayor Larry Langford was arrested on federal corruption charges. And the list goes on.
It should be noted that all of those mentioned have not been convicted. Some are simply charged and are presumed innocent until proven guilty in a court of law. But while their right to a fair trial is well established, there is something to be said when there is a strong hint of criminality in one’s behavior in office and allegations of corruption are persistent.
The inside rap among Blacks in politics for years has been that Black elected officials should know better than to try to get away with what white politicians have been known to do, and worse, almost embarrassingly acknowledging that the thievery of Black politicians never matches the level of whites. In private conversations many Blacks loathe Black politicians for their petty thievery and stupidity for jeopardizing their office over insignificant sums of money. Well, if recent convictions and charges are any indication, Black elected officials are trying to move into the Big Leagues of corruption and it’s the community that will pay the price.
Whether it’s Newark, Boston or New Orleans, it’s evident that the Black community in these places has tremendous need and deserves political representation of the highest caliber if there are to be any improvements in the quality of life for residents. Political corruption is just another injustice heaped upon countless others that keep many Blacks disadvantaged and communities in a constant state of disrepair. Yet, unlike the Blagojevich episode where the governor has been roundly denounced and calls for his resignation or impeachment swift, when Black elected officials have crossed the line they are often defended, understandably so in some instances, by a community that still harbors suspicions toward law enforcement. The history of prosecutorial racism in the country has been a hindrance to there being an open and honest discussion about the need to hold Black elected officials accountable; not to a greater degree than their white counterparts but with the same expectation of ethical leadership.
Ironically, the election of Barack Obama may have another effect that no one saw on the radar. It may elevate ethics to the forefront of Black voters’ consciousness when considering for whom to cast their vote. Depending upon how the President-elect navigates the Blagojevich scandal, he could raise the bar for Black elected officials by demonstrating that public service need not be compromised by illegal acts if integrity is the guiding principle of political leadership. Indeed, if all of the evidence and investigation of Governor Blagojevich shows that Mr. Obama indeed was indifferent toward the governor and made an effort to distance himself, it will set a powerful example for Black elected officials to follow.