So…. What about this?
That question is the basis for this new column. The idea is to throw out new and quite possibly crazy ideas for “fixing” something in New Jersey. The goal is that perhaps some of these wacky ideas might be worth a deeper look, a conversation or at the very least something more than “Hey, its Jersey, that won’t work here.” I have my own crazy ideas but certainly don’t have a monopoly on them. If you have your own let me know, maybe I will write about it. Maybe it will happen. Now wouldn’t that be crazy?
New Jersey is a recipe for corruption. We need another cook.
The details of New Jersey’s political corruption shenanigans are so legendary there is no need to repeat them. While who is accused or indicted changes from week to week, there are four ingredients that make New Jersey particularly adept at cooking up a tasty stew of political corruption.
Ethnic Politics matter.
Ethnic centered political machines still matter in the Garden State. In New Jersey, you could probably create political power lists for Irish, Greek, Portuguese or Haitian-Americans to go along with the more traditional Latino and African-American power lists. While staying connected to roots is a wonderful thing, it means that young politicians from any of these groups have a built in powerbase and apparatus that needs regular care, feeding (meaning contracts and cash). This is a key ingredient of any corruption stew.
Local Politics matter.
New Jersey has 565 different “municipalities.” California has 478. As with ethnic politics, powerful municipalities can be a wonderful thing for residents. However, the local power brokers create yet another source of debt for the politicians old and young. Like taxes for residents, young politicians have to “pay” local mayors and officials again in the form of favors, contracts and grants. This is another ingredient for the corruption stew.
North vs. South divide.
The north/south divide adds another spice to the mix as south Jersey’s Donald Norcross and the gaggle of North Jersey power brokers keep their troops in line by yet again dolling out the contract and campaign cash.
Major market, Minor (but innovative) Media.
New Jersey has the same number of televisions stations licensed in it as North Platte, Nebraska (a subject for an entire other column). Snuggled between the massive New York and Philadelphia media markets, New Jersey will always struggle for media attention. The financial disaster that is the newspaper business hurts New Jersey harder than most. Don’t get me wrong, New Jersey is blessed to have some amazing reporters and innovative platforms (like InsiderNJ) focused on New Jersey government. However, the fact remains that it is easier for politicians to cook up a corruption stew when you don’t have tons of reporters looking over your shoulder.
Completely fixing this corruption stew is not likely to happen anytime soon, it wasn’t created overnight and won’t be fixed overnight.
So… what about this?
Let’s make the New Jersey Attorney General an elected position.*
New Jersey is one of just seven states that does not directly elected the Attorney General and one of just four states where the Governor appoints her (that is a hint Phil). Changing that and making the attorney general an elected position would accomplish three things that might help.
Equal Opportunity Law Enforcement.
Anytime an appointed attorney general goes after the other party the calls of political prosecution start before the perp walk ends. An Attorney General elected by the entire state would have a strong political incentive to the state’s “good cop” and therefore go after republicans and democrats with equal vigor. Let’s face it we need someone who has the incentive to play the good cop.
Looking beyond the local.
The old joke in Trenton is that every state senator looks in the mirror and sees a Governor. That only works for State Senators if it Jersey shore fun house mirror. But maybe not with a statewide elected attorney general. Since she would actually be elected by the state, she would actually speak for the entire state and not just the local ethnic group, municipality or ward. If nothing else, an elected attorney general would be one more statewide voice to balance the cacophony of local ones.
Cover for the youngsters.
A strong independent attorney general would make it easier for up and coming politicians to say no to local political bosses. When face with a potentially corrupting influence; the young politician could say “You know I would love to help, but we have this new AG and she is breathing down our necks…” It might work.
Turn on the spotlight.
If nothing else an elected attorney general would have a strong incentive to conduct the type of deep investigations into government malfeasance that unfortunately are more and more difficult for the local media to do today. An elected attorney general would have the incentives to push for all kinds of investigations AND to shine a big spotlight on the results.
At the end of the day, electing a state attorney general is not going to eliminate New Jersey’s corruption stew. The recipe for it is a long held family tradition and those don’t go away over night or because of one person. However, electing a state attorney general would at least bring a new cook into the kitchen and that might make New Jersey politics a little more palatable.
So… What about that?
Matthew Hale, Ph.D
Associate Professor and MPA Director
Department of Political Science and Public Affairs
Seton Hall University
*At least two candidates running for Governor subscribe to the idea of an elected attorney general: Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno and Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D-19).