If you leave in New Jersey, as we at NorthStar News do, you have grown accustomed to the “perp walk” as a sort of rite of passage for our elected officials. New Jerseyans are rarely shocked to turn on the television and see their elected leaders led out of Black sedans in handcuffs. For a state that embraces the “Jersey Devil” as folk lore, names highway rest stops after its famous residents, and is the home of the B-movie hero “The Toxic Avenger,” corrupt officials are just a way of life. We have become so numbed by the thievery that there is little expectation of anything else from those we elect to represent our interests in the halls of government.
Even though we have become almost immune to scandal, last week’s roundup of elected officials and several Rabbis was breathtaking even by our own standards. The breadth of the federal sting was breathtaking as several mayors, city officials, state legislators and a member of the governor’s cabinet were either directly charged or implicated. The result has been sheer chaos. The scandal could ultimately harm the reelection bid of Governor Jon Corzine, who is locked in a tough campaign against the former U.S. Attorney Chris Christie, his Republican challenger. The investigation that resulted in last week’s mass arrests was started under Christie’s watch; a fact that his supporters will undoubtedly claim as proof that his “law and order” approach works. To be clear though, political corruption in New Jersey is not confined to any one political party. Democrats and Republicans alike have been on the receiving end of federal paper and wound up in prison.
This past Friday former State Senator Wayne Bryant, once one of the state’s leading Democrats, was sentenced to four years in prison by a federal judge for his padding his state pension through a “low-show” job. Bryant, from the city of Camden, was the architect of the state’s controversial welfare reform measures and gained a national reputation for his “tough love” approach to the poor. His case personifies the political environment in our state. There have been many others like Bryant, including the mayors of Newark, Paterson and Irvington, who have let their greed overcome their better judgment. While the guilty have come in all hues, it has been particularly painful to watch Black elected officials, like Bryant, succumb to their weaknesses. Life in the Garden State is trying at best for many Blacks, a large contingent of who are mired in poverty and literally trapped in neighborhoods in the state’s cities. Some of which are the poorest urban areas in the nation. To have our elected officials betray us is like pouring salt in an open wound.
Our state is unfortunately tailor made for corruption. With 567 municipalities, ranging from population in the thousands to Newark with over a quarter million, and over 600 local school districts, we are a state of political fiefdoms. The duplication of services (e.g. police, fire, school system) provides many opportunities for manipulating the contracting and land use process for personal gain or using one’s office to advantage parties that pay in return. In many ways, we can’t address political corruption until we address the system that breeds it.
What is certain is that the residents of New Jersey are paying the price for the ethical shortcomings of our political leadership. Every bribe linked to a development deal has behind it the specter of shortcuts in construction leading to shoddy buildings or more of the ugly architecture that dots the state. Then there is the wasted tax dollars spent on contracts that are padded, leading to taxpayers footing the bill for poor services. The local tax burden in our state is legendary and some of it is attributable to the “corruption tax” we all pay when our elected officials steal. The real question is whether we will continue to pay this tax or finally demand for reform of our state’s government structure. New Jersey’s voters bear some blame because we have repeatedly supported candidates for office without proper vetting and failed to hold those in office accountable. It has left political parties and their cronies with free reign to rip the state off as they please. A federal prosecutor cannot end corruption in the Rotten State, only the people can cleanse it of this cancer.