Rich Guys in Politics

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Mr. Fleming is the author of Mysteries of My Father, a memoir about growing up in Frank Hague’s Jersey City. He has also written a seven novel cycle about the experience.

With New York’s Governor Eliot Spitzer in his political grave, what are we to think? The revelation that this self-advertised reformer was paying tens of thousands of laundered dollars to a prostitution ring surely tells us something about the current political scene. beyond banal psychologizing or arguing that it was a “victimless crime,” as several letter writers to the New York Times and other newspapers maintain.

I suggest we look on Mr. Spitzer as a new phenomenon – a rich guy in politics. We have more and more of them, thanks to the provision in the McCain Feingold Campaign Finance law which permits the rich to spend their own money in an election, while the rest of us are limited to contributing two thousand or so dollars to their opponents. If Mr. Spitzer and his neighbor in New Jersey, Governor Jon Corzine, are typical, maybe we better think about some much needed changes in our electoral laws.

Spitzer and Corzine are both Democrats. As someone who was born into the party of the common man and had a grandfather who could not write, I imbibed with my mother’s milk the notion that the Democrats were the party of the poor and lower middle class and their leaders were seldom if ever rich. My father, who served eight years as Sheriff of Hudson County, New Jersey, died with $16,000 in the bank.

Later, as I matured into that creature called an historian, I discovered the party was a lot more complicated. It was started by a rich man who lived in a spectacular mansion on a hilltop in Virginia and perfected by a wealthy general from Tennessee who led an army to a breathtaking victory that saved the country from dismemberment. In the 20th Century the party was led by a well-heeled master politician from New York who was described to me by the vice president who succeeded him as “the coldest man I ever met.” Then there is Frank Hague, the boss who dominated New Jersey in my salad days. He died worth $80 million in today’s depreciated dollars.

So what’s so shocking about these rich guys taking over the Democratic Party in New York and New Jersey? They do and say all the right Democratic things. They condemn greedy Republicans as apologists for the privileged class, they gulp ethnic food, they pose for pictures with blacks, Latinos, grinning kids and vacuous looking senior citizens. The shock comes from the way they seem to have emerged from nowhere. They have no previous political experience worth mentioning and their pathways to instant success have been paved by wads of hundred dollar bills.

Eliot Spitzer ran for attorney general of New York on four or five million dollars from his real estate tycoon father, Bernard Spitzer, who is reputedly worth $500 million. The money was a violation of the spirit if not the letter of the campaign finance laws. Jon Corzine elected himself to the U.S. Senate from New Jersey by all but buying the state’s Democratic politicians with showers of cash from his three hundred million dollar Goldman Sachs fortune. Bored in the Senate, Corzine decided that the governorship might be more stimulating and switched jobs. It was as easy as spending another twenty or thirty million.

No one kept track of the gifts. One that sticks in my mind was two or three hundred thousand dollars given to the Democratic leader of one of the New Jersey’s more populous counties - -- by Corzine’s mother! Because both these rich guys are Democrats, the media of both states rolled over and more or less gasped: “Ohhhhhh, aren’t they wonderful?”

The only critical remarks came from fellow politicians who were used to raising money the old way – from the people. My favorite is a story by New Jersey’s wittiest pol, former Governor Brendan Byrne. He claimed he had a dream that Governor Corzine awoke one morning in a bad mood, looked out his bedroom window and said to himself: “This isn’t the state I meant to buy!”

How these rich guys got elected is worrisome enough. Much more troubling is the way they’ve operated in office. As attorney general, Spitzer prosecuted with special zeal prostitution rings – while presumably being one ring’s most spendthrift customer. This must be a new low in official hypocrisy. As governor he ordered the state police to get dirt on Joseph Bruno, the recalcitrant leader of the Republican majority in the Senate, a tactic worthy of Richard Nixon in his prime. When leaders of both houses of the legislature balked at his program, Spitzer roared: “Don’t you know I’m a --------- steamroller?” The pols went straight to the nearest reporter and the outburst swiftly became one of the legends of Albany.

In New Jersey, Governor Corzine was startled that Republicans disapproved of him negotiating a labor contract with Carla Katz, an attractive brunette with whom he had lived for some time after he divorced his wife. She heads one of the state’s largest public employee unions. When Republican legislators asked to see the emails the Governor had exchanged with Ms Katz, they were curtly told these were privileged communications. Meanwhile, to guarantee Ms Katz’s silence about their relationship, the Governor gave her various gifts totaling $6 million.

One of my New Jersey friends describes Governor Corzine as “a transactional personality.” He assumes that everyone can be bought, one way or another. A top aide reportedly has $5 million in a Florida bank that he will collect if he does exactly what he is told on the job and of course never never writes a line about how the governor operates.

Last year Governor Corzine was in an automobile accident in his official limousine. The car was going 90 miles an hour and he was not wearing his seatbelt. By a miracle he survived. A reporter asked the state policeman who was driving why he didn’t tell the governor to put on his seatbelt and obey the speed limit. The policeman could only shake his head in astonishment at the naivete of the question. No one talks that way to a man worth three hundred million dollars.

A few years ago I wrote an article about the history of campaign finance legislation for American Heritage Magazine. I came away convinced it was the phoniest, dumbest idea that has come down the political pike since prohibition. The antics of Messrs Corzine and Spitzer have convinced me that this latest example of American do-goodism should meet the same legislative fate: oblivion.

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Robert Lee Gaston - 3/22/2008

At least if they are rich they have probably succeeded at something. What do we want Mid-level civil servants to run the country? We have had one college professor and nearly a hundred years of PR have failed to cover up his impact on American civil liberties and race relations.

I do not consider a lifetime spent living on the taxpayer’s dime a well spent life.

Michael Hattem - 3/19/2008

I have become increasingly disillusioned with the electoral system as the amount of money needed to run for office, even a House seat, essentially precludes everyone but millionaires from running. Campaign finance reform is the right idea but the application is all wrong. When you have a Congress that is filled with millionaires, the peoples' interests are not their main concern. Here's a couple of ideas off my head to return the electoral system and its offices back to the people:

1. Restrict (or even better) eliminate corporate contributions to political candidates. This includes PACs. Candidates are beholden to those interests which help get them elected. If they had to depend ONLY on the peoples' votes and not the corporations' money, they would be more likely to do the peoples' business rather than corporate interests and more likely to listen to their constituents rather than the lobbyists.


2. Have full federal campaign finance with no opt-out clause. If candidates could ONLY use federal grant money (and each candidate received the same amount) it would hasten a return to ideas dominating a campaign rather than war chests.

3. Restrictions on former public officials (and their high-level staff) taking jobs with companies who were major contributors to their campaigns.

4. More restrictions on lobbying.

5. Bring the Debate Commission under government control. Third party candidates are unfairly shut out from having their voices heard by a private organization run by the two major parties. Something as important to the electoral process as debates should not be in the hands of private companies run by partisan party officials. It's antithetical to true democracy as are all the problems these suggestions address.

These measures would seek to address what I see as the basis of what is wrong with electoral politics in this country. Corporations have to be removed from their prominent position in the electoral process. All candidates should have an even playing field. Perhaps if the people saw serious changes being made to safeguard the electoral process more than 50% of them might actually turn out to vote.