How You Can Start and Operate a Soup Kitchen

Mission Possible: How You Can Start and Operate a Soup Kitchen

Why culture of corruption persists in New Jersey

The recent 14-count federal indictment against New Jersey's senior Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez will, no doubt, trigger considerable discussion and a lot of lamenting about why New Jersey is so corrupt. Before ruminating on the topic here, I'll make one thing perfectly clear: I do not think the preponderance of New Jersey's politicians are corrupt.

Unlike many New Jerseyans, especially those who show a great deal of "beer muscle" on various internet blogs, I do not question the honesty of most New Jersey politicians. I would be flabbergasted if I found out that my hometown mayor, Shing-Fu Hsueh; my county executive, Brian Hughes; my state senator, Shirley Turner; my long-term assemblyman, Reed Gusciora or my newest assemblywoman, Liz Muoio, were corrupt.

As a devout Democrat, I need to make it clear that I believe there are honest politicians on both sides of the aisle. For example, I believe Gov. Tom Kean Sr. and former state Sens. Bill Schluter and Ray Bateman are three of many examples of Republican politicians who operated with a great deal of integrity and were always above reproach.

My sense that there are honest politicians does not only come from viewing politics from afar.

Early in my career, I served in the administration of Gov. Richard J. Hughes and was involved in Jersey City politics for a few years, serving as the school district's business manager and as a campaign operative in two mayoral elections. The candidate I successfully supported was Paul Jordan, who ran for mayor under the slogan "Kick the Kenny Habit" (John V. Kenny was a long-time boss in Jersey City). The man I replaced as school business manager had to leave because of inappropriate actions in office.

I know about political corruption - giving 10 percent of the value of municipal and school board contracts back to "the boys" downtown, and political appointees insisting that public employees and vendors make political donations and forcing vendors to buy tickets to political fundraisers as a condition of doing business with the city and the board of education. It was difficult to convince both vendors and employees that things had changed when I took office.

While I do not see New Jersey as the cesspool of corruption that others do, I believe there is a culture of corruption in my adopted state, but not for the typical reasons, i.e.: too many government entities (565 separate municipalities, 590 school districts, numerous fire districts), a very powerful governor and the extremely high cost of running for office in New Jersey, because it is wedged between the expensive New York City and Philadelphia media markets.

The culture of corruption is attributable to three distinct factors. First, too many New Jerseyans have an inferiority complex and as a result do not insist officeholders adhere to the highest ethical standards. Further, they do not show sufficient indignation when an officeholder violates their trust. When you don't think you deserve of something, you don't set the bar high enough. When you don't set the standards high enough for candidates, you don't always get officeholders who have the requisite integrity to treat public office with the trust it deserves. In New Jersey, we do not set our standards high enough for our state university, our professional sports teams (who are allowed to play in stadiums in our state but do not have our state's name on their uniforms) or events held in our state (it was really hard to get the NFL to acknowledge that the Super Bowl was held in New Jersey).

Second, political bosses are too powerful in New Jersey. Their presence increases the influence of money on our politics. The current pre-eminent political boss of New Jersey is South Jersey's George Norcross III. He has inordinate influence on both political parties. He is seen by some as the most powerful force in New Jersey. Most recently, his invisible hand was evident in the crushing defeat of Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Barbara Buono, the overwhelming re-election victory of Chris Christie and the lack of obstacles in Sen. Booker's winning race for the U.S. Senate.

Given the enormous role money plays in politics, there are increasingly limited pathways to become governor in New Jersey. Either candidates garner Norcross' support and the campaign largess that goes with it, or they come from Hudson County, or, like former Gov. Jon Corzine and likely 2017 gubernatorial hopeful Phil Murphy, they are super-wealthy and can self-finance their campaigns.

The negative long-time effects of bossism are inevitable. Bosses have access to contributors because supporters know they will have access to elected officials. Contributions pay for influence, and influence peddling leads to political corruption.

Third, the New Jersey culture of corruption is facilitated by a lack of both a full-service statewide television station and a statewide newspaper to provide in-depth coverage and investigative reporting of government, public policy and politics. Instead of comprehensive coverage, we receive coverage of two New Jerseys - north and south. This bifurcated geographic coverage reinforces our lack of a statewide identity and facilitates bossism, which fosters our state's culture of misconduct.