The first time I was involved in politics was in my hometown in South Jersey. The year was 1971. I had moved home from college and was just finishing my first year of law school. A friend from high school had been elected a Democratic committeeman in my (very Republican) home town. He asked me to get involved and be a district leader for the district in which my family resided.
That Fall, we were courted by a young, first-term Democratic Assemblyman who had been redistricted such that my home town was now part of his Assembly district. Two years earlier, he had defeated a long-time Democratic Assemblyman who was part of an old (and corrupt) machine in Camden.
Any event we scheduled for him, he attended. He spoke as long as it took. We knocked on doors. We made phone calls. Because I was a local and had graduated from the local high school, folks were willing to listen to me. We all worked very hard.
Our goal, which we hoped was realistic, was to increase Democratic turnout for the election as well as switch a substantial number of Republicans to voting for a Democratic Assemblyman. He ended up losing our town by a slim margin, which he more than made up for in the City. The Republicans had, of course, been hoping that towns like ours would cancel the Democratic advantage in the City. He was re-elected.
Once back in office, he came to see us regularly. He was in regular touch with our Borough Commissioners, who were all Republican. If our Borough needed something from the Legislature, he would try to push through the appropriate Bill.
This Assemblyman eventually ran for the Congressional seat that included our Borough. He won on the second try and served for many years in the House.
I moved away shortly after he was elected to Congress but was back regularly. I never heard of any scandal surrounding this official. There was never any hint of his taking bribes, which had been the common practice of the machine politician he defeated in that 1969 primary.
In our local Democratic organization, we wanted to do away with the taint that surrounded many Democratic organizations because of years of bribe-taking in so many urban machines. Such corruption would never get the votes of our Republican neighbors, even if they were inclined to consider certain Democratic positions. They wanted "clean" politics. (Remember that this is before Watergate.)
It seems that the entire process is now broken. I now live in Los Angeles County, California. Many years ago, the electorate enacted something called the Fair Political Practices Act. Sad to say, the FPPA has now been amended so that political contributions can be used for anything that arguably has anything to do with one's legislative office.
The maximum individual contribution for a legislative campaign is $3,900 per election. Every two years, there are two elections, a primary and a general. That's $7,800 every two years, which becomes $15,600 if a married couple jointly donate.
How is this money spent? The Los Angeles Times recently provided an example when they looked at some of the expenditures of various Assembly members. One former Speaker of the Assembly took his family to France for a vacation. While there, he purchased $10,000 worth of premium French wine, which he said he would be using to serve at fund raising events. He spent over $5,000 at the Louis Vuitton store, which he said was for staff gifts. No one ever actually follows up on these claims. I frankly find the claims specious. The trip, the wine, and the shopping spree were all paid out of campaign funds. The campaign funds paid not just for his travel, lodgings, and food, but those of his wife and children as well.
Many Democrats continue to like such politicians because they vote "their way" on certain progressive legislation. Progressives originally tried to get rid of the bribe-takers because of the taint and because we could not compete with big money. Many seem to have forgotten that.
In California now, the mantra of the citizenry is that everyone in politics is corrupt, so it doesn't matter if your representative is corrupt, so long as he or she is voting the "right" way. This attitude, which I have heard so many times, is nausea-inducing.
My representative in the Assembly routinely takes his wife with him to campaign appearances. His wife is a Superior Court judge. It is a violation of the Canons of Judicial Ethics for a Judge to endorse or campaign for or with any candidate for non-judicial office. There are no exceptions for spouses. The Assemblyman doesn't care. The Supreme Court doesn't care. Progressives seem to have given up on the foundation of progressivism.
In the current health care reform debate, we know that Senator Max Baucus and Senator Kent Conrad are fighting the public option after they have received millions of dollars in campaign funds from health insurers. No one has called this bribery. This is distressing, since doing so would reflect the deserved shame we as Democrats should feel about having such scum in the party. They simply do not pass the smell test.
Folks who profess to be progressive should focus on a bit of cleanliness, lest the election be won and the soul be lost.