The NJ Spillover of George Santos

Republican Congressman George Santos (NY-3) is no longer a holder of that office, nor the public trust, and New Jersey’s congressional delegation helped make that a reality.  The pathological liar proved too much of a chaos storm of deceit, controversy, and absurdity that even 105 Republicans, although notably not the House Speaker, voted for his ouster.  Santos’ ignominious career in the House of Representatives even comes to an end with accusations by Ohio Republican Congressman Max Miller accusing him of stealing his credit card information—along with that of his mother’s—and making off with thousands of dollars. 

Across the Hudson River, where New Jersey fumes over NYC’s congestion tax plan to penalize New Jerseyan commuters, the congressional delegation voted, unanimously, to expel Santos in what was the second—and successful—vote to do so.  House Democrats and Republicans in the Garden State could agree that a guy like Santos was too much.  Congressman Bill Pascrell, Jr., said, “George Santos is a con artist, a fraudster, and one of the biggest embarrassments ever elected to the United States Congress. If ever there was addition by subtraction, this is it. Good riddance.”

It seems like that might be the only thing they agree on these days, but it is a signal that New Jerseyans expect and require a minimum standard of ethics from their leaders on the federal level. 

The Millennial congressman goes back to Long Island, his career in shambles, as the sixth congressman ever expelled, the second in the 21st Century since Ohio Democratic Congressman Jim Traficant was given the heave-ho after multiple criminal convictions in 2002.  Prior to Traficant, Pennsylvania Democratic Congressman Michael Myers was booted, convicted of bribery in 1980.  No one had been expelled from either the House or Senate previously since the Civil War, when 17 Congressmen and Senators were expelled for supporting the Confederate States of America.  The first man expelled from Congress was Senator William Blount of Tennessee, a Democratic-Republican, who was thrown out in 1797 for trying to stir up rebellion among British-sympathizing Cherokee and Creek in West Florida, a Spanish colony at the time. 

Looking at the record, Santos is the first Republican to be expelled from the Congress, earning him a unique place in America’s history.  But a bipartisan vote of 311-114 showed that the people have had enough, with Congressmen Jeff Van Drew, Tom Kean, Jr., and Chris Smith breaking with Speaker Johnson. 

Johnson, for his part, had previously said that he was worried about setting a bad precedent, by voting for Santos’ expulsion. 

The fact of the matter is, there is no HR Department for Congress.  HR reviews come up every two or six years with elections.  During that time, however, no small degree of harm can be done by incompetent and/or malicious elected leaders.  For the un-elected body which holds enormous power over American lives, the matter is entirely about self-policing.  The Supreme Court of the United States, rocked by the recent Clarence Thomas scandals, has even adopted a code of ethics, which some in government have said is a good step.  Senator Chuck Schumer, however, felt it was more of a show than anything concrete.  Schumer said, “…the lack of any way to enforce the code of conduct should any justice decide to ignore it is a glaring omission,” but, at least, this third branch of the federal government has minimally responded to public demands for better behavior from those who govern them and hold what remains of the public trust. 

It is well and good, the typical New Jerseyan may say, that at least New Jersey’s House delegation could agree that Santos needed to go.  This, however, leaves the other elephant in the room: Senator Bob Menendez. 

Menendez has to have his day in court.  His constitutional right to a trial of his peers is unquestioned.  Nevertheless, both he and Santos took the position that they will remain in office to the bitter end.  In the case of Santos, he was removed against his will.  Menendez has faced numerous calls to resign, but ignored them, instead determining to battle to the last cartridge in what will likely be Menendez’s Last Stand. 

The United States as a whole, and New Jersey in particular, may be a republic, but that does not mean political dynasties do not exist.  Dynasties, in fact, bring comfort to the political kingpins, who operate within a particular, mostly-sealed realm outside those struggling paycheck-to-paycheck, because dynasties represent a known commodity.  From the outside, it looks like simple favoritism.  With Santos removed for being a compulsive liar and cheat, New Jersey’s congressional leaders have made a statement that there is a minimum ethical standard, while wringing their hands over what to do about the state’s senior US senator.   

State Democrats, in the meantime, will try to convince their base that Republican-turned-Democrat First Lady Tammy Murphy, who has not held public office but nevertheless been closely involved in politics, is the best choice, based on her personal and professional virtues—for any reason other than just because she’s the out-going governor’s wife.  Committee chairs are lining up behind Murphy, as they did for her husband when Governor Murphy stormed onto New Jersey’s political stage in 2017.  Resentment for Phil Murphy at the time came about as he was seen as having elbowed loyal Democrats who had “played the game” and were waiting for their turn in the captain’s chair.  Murphy was able to crush Christie-burdened Lt. Governor Kim Guadagno and triumphed, setting the stage for an animosity between the governor and Senate President Steve Sweeney that would endure until Sweeney’s fall to Ed Durr.  Murphy proved himself a capable and shrewd political survivor—perhaps even cut-throat at times behind closed doors—in eking out a re-election against Republican Jack Ciattarelli while trying to steer the ship of state in the worst public health crisis in a century.  He was able to do so, and by constitutional term limits, Phil Murphy cannot run again.  But the Murphy name, it seems, will not go quietly into the night. 

There is no moral equivalency between George Santos and those New Jerseyans seeking to knock Menendez from office, but Democratic strategists will have to ask themselves, if they can see past their own self-congratulating circles, why will the rank-and-file necessarily follow Tammy Murphy?   She gears up for a potential primary with Congressman Andy Kim and Senator Menendez, both of whom have their own legislative records and are not, in fact, married to the governor.  Murphy has surname recognition, which may ingratiate herself among New Jersey’s political elite, but that could have the opposite effect with voters who see Menendez-esque nepotism, just as the senator cleared the path—lauded by Governor Murphy—for his own son, Robert, to become a congressman. 

On the other side of the coin, to give the benefit of the doubt, Congressman Robert Junior will have to deal with the fallout from his father’s political implosion.  He has yet to prove his record.  This may have the consequence of hampering, or even torpedoing, a freshman congressman who might demonstrate good potential, leadership, and acumen.  The question there is whether or not New Jerseyans will want to give him, or Tammy Murphy, the chance.  Voters are not, obviously, opposed to political dynasties, as evidenced by the Roosevelts, Kennedys, Clintons and Bushes nationally, or the Buccos, Keans, Menendezes, Paynes, Frelinghuysens, and Hughes on the state-level. 

The message from New Jersey’s political establishment, in the aftermath of Santos and on-going turmoil of Menendez, seems clear.  The right person can go far, by whichever means seem to deliver–cash, fame, bloodlines, or all the above–but once in office, there is a point where one can go too far (and it is very far), even by New Jersey standards on both the left and the right.  

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