Something's Rotten in the State of New Jersey

Political corruption is not exclusive to New Jersey. Most other states have witnessed similar conduct.
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The white collar defense bar is rejoicing: 34 arrests, headlines, Jersey jokes. We've seen it all before. It's a very dark day in the Garden State.

Political corruption is not exclusive to New Jersey. Most other states have witnessed similar conduct. Watching prosecutors here though, it seems to be like shooting fish in a barrel. Turn a crooked suit, have him wave illicit cash at the locals, and a number take the hook.

Of course, most elected officials are honest and conscientious; the rats give them a bad name. No wonder many interested and qualified citizens shy away from public service. But what is the formula that attracts the rest?

In New Jersey, there are some structural flaws that create a moldy environment: 8 million people jammed into a small area; part-time officials governing more than 350 municipalities, 21 counties and a bicameral legislature; rigid environmental and zoning regulation of the remaining available land in the heart of the most strategic region of the nation with growing demand for housing and other uses. It's an expensive place to live, too, so residents work and commute long hours to keep cash flow intact. None of that justifies corruption, of course.

Antique political norms persist. Even as the state's cities have experienced economic stagnation for two generations, control has remained in the hands of party bosses with tentacles that reach down to boards with authority to make decisions that affect business and up to county and state legislative bodies with budget and taxing authority. The gentrification of Hoboken and Jersey City, the two cities where most of the arrests were made this morning, has not promoted civic engagement. Young educated residents, attracted by lower housing costs, commute daily across the Hudson to New York. At home, they mingle, mate, and move to suburbia when their incomes allow and the first child is in the oven. They don't get involved, leaving a vacuum that party politics dominate.

While the state is home to some of the nation's leading universities and corporations, there is a continuing theme of "moving on" -- not just among the young professionals of Hoboken and Jersey City. It is also seen among the rising corporate strivers who huddle in lovely suburbs during their New Jersey stay, and avoid involvement in civic life.

Oh, and did I mention there's an election this year? The Republican candidate for governor is a recently-resigned US Attorney who built a strong record fishing in the barrel cited above. He brings no other qualifications to the campaign. The state has suffered terribly from the Wall St meltdown; so many commuting financial professionals have been laid off, one can easily find a parking space these days at suburban station lots. Taxes are high; education costs are spiraling; voters are confused, nervous and angry.

The challenger has no answers; one suspects that his polling confirms that the voters might be induced to make "political corruption" the overriding issue -- rather than dealing with complicated answers to the state's long-standing structural budget, energy, education and healthcare problems -- all of which the incumbent has addressed with real programs that can make a difference.

What might be even a more daunting challenge will be to slim down bloated government in a "home rule" state, introduce ethics into the curriculum of school and colleges, and attract greater participation in public affairs among state residents. Until then, the pattern witnessed today will certainly re-occur in New Jersey -- and the rest of the country as well.

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