Tony Mack (foreground)
State Senator Roderick Wright at trial.
Black Politicians and Corruption
Two more black politicians fall. This time it’s Trenton Mayor Tony Mack and California State Senator Roderick Wright. Like some of you, I’ve spent many years wondering why Black politicians don’t know that they cannot do what others do and expect to get by. I’ve changed my mind about that. The structure of American politics, the state of American democracy mixed with race and class virtually guarantee we’ll travel down these roads much more often than we would like.
Sen. Wright was essentially convicted of living outside of his district. He’s not the first one in my neck of the woods to stand accused of this. Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, Judy Dunlap, Mervyn Dymally and others have skated away from similar charges. I discussed Wright’s woes with a politically active friend who said that there was a right way to do it. Wright’s failure for her was a tactical one. I was furious. Is this the best we can hope to live up to? More successful lawbreaking?
On the other hand, Mayor Tony Mack has been convicted bribery, fraud and extortion. He’s not alone The New York Times reports that:
Since 2000, mayors of the New Jersey communities of Asbury Park, Camden, Hamilton, Hoboken, Newark, Orange, Passaic, Paterson and Perth Amboy, among others, have been convicted or have pleaded guilty in corruption cases.
I have to wonder how much more motivated public officials might be if they lived in the same conditions as their constituents. Because no one in their right mind would want to. Change would become a top priority. That would certainly be one way to convert firebrands into effective legislators, political outsiders into impactful chief executives.
The question of corruption is trickier. I realized that I’m angry at Mayor Mack not only because he sold out his constituents, but because he sold them out so cheaply and inexpertly. I’m embarrassed and ashamed to see some black officials pulling stunts like stuffing bribes into their bras or hiding money in freezers. I’m ashamed to say it, but if Mack had managed to pull off a Kennedy and turn ill gotten gains into clean money and a legacy, my complaints might be much more muted.
I decry the low expectations that suggest that the best we can hope for is a mirrored, debased version of the corruption of the past. Particularly when there’s no longer enough money to go around. In The Wire, an Irish pol says something like if we made five dollars, we only stole two, now you [the blacks] steal four. The city’s got nothing left.
As more and more money floods into politics thanks to Citizens United and the failure to enact meaning political contribution reform, how do outsiders — those without the book deals (The Audacity of Hope) or the family money (The Kennedys) or well heeled pasts (Bain Capital) get in? How do they stay in? Thrust into a millionaire’s club with which they have no hope of competing, we should expect to see more situations like this:
Proving that an insatiable desire for bling and need to keep up with the Jones isn’t restricted to any particular demographic.
What’s the way forward? Maybe it’s time to throw some more old heads into the mix. Experience, deep commitment to service, expertise and canniness with ego and hormones pleasantly at bay. More Gov. Browns for everyone.