In 2003, Mayor Joe Ganim of Bridgeport, Connecticut was convicted by a federal jury on 16 felony counts of racketeering, bribery, conspiracy, mail fraud, and tax evasion for accepting more than $500,000 in cash, diamonds, expensive wine, tailored clothing, high-priced meals, and home renovations in a widespread kickback scheme that also led to the convictions of 10 of his associates. He served seven years in federal prison. Despite running a notorious pay for play administration, getting caught and going to jail, Ganim was again elected as the Mayor of Bridgeport on November 3 with more than 60% of the vote and more than a 2-1 margin against his closest challenger. Although he is an attorney, as a convicted felon, he could not vote in the election, and he is no longer licensed to practice law.
How is it possible that voters could return to office someone who definitively violated their trust for personal gain? Let’s examine the primary reasons why:
- Everybody deserves a second chance. The National Employment Law Project (NELP) estimates that almost one in three Americans has been arrested for a non-traffic offense. Assuming that many of those arrested have families, it is possible that over half of all Americans have either been arrested or have had someone in their close family who was, making them sympathetic to reform stories.
- He was a good mayor in the past who helped me and my family/friends. What he did wrong didn’t hurt me. The “see no evil, hear no evil” approach. If you don’t pay any taxes, who cares if the mayor robs the city blind?
- He was the Democrat on the ballot. ”I always vote the party line.” Well, one simply can’t fix stupid! Just because a person gets into a voting booth doesn’t mean they have any idea what the issues are.
- Everybody in politics lies or cheats. Hilary Clinton is the Democratic Presidential front runner for 2016. She has a long history of controversial truth bending and extending. In the latest scandal, emails to daughter Chelsea from the night of the Benghazi attack on the US embassy, the former Secretary of State acknowledges a terrorist action even as she tells the families of American casualties the event happened because of a Hollywood video (so as not to disrupt a coming election with any facts detrimental to administration story lines that terrorism was receding). Polls are variable, but recently as few as 29% of voters think she is trustworthy, and yet over 60% of democrats would be happy to vote for her.
- Even though I knew he was corrupt, his policies were better than anyone else running. This is the hardest reason to truly understand, because of the presumption that character simply doesn’t matter. It is a thought corrosive to the idea of a civil society.
The re-election of a politician who betrayed the people’s trust in a brazen manner is not a new phenomenon. In victory, Ganim is reminiscent of Buddy Cianci, the mayor of Providence, RI who was forced to resign from office twice after felony convictions for corruption. Marion Barry of Washington, D.C. is another example, although Barry was caught up in felonious drug usage and possession instead of taking bribes. In both of these cases, the Mayors continued their felonious conduct after their first convictions. Ganim’s prospects for rehabilitation are likely dim as well, given that after being in prison for five years, he gamed the system to claim a previously undisclosed substance abuse problem. With successful completion of a treatment program, and good behavior while behind bars, Ganim was able to shave 32 months from his sentence.
Giving someone a second chance sounds eminently reasonable. But that doesn’t mean one would want to simply put an offender into the same position where they have previously betrayed you. Just look at the Catholic Church’s decision to allow pedophile priests continuing access to children. Why would one place an admitted thief and corrupt bureaucrat back into the same job where he can steal and racketeer again? Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me!
In his fascinating book The Wisdom of Crowds, James Surowiecki argues that even absent specific knowledge, a crowd of diverse individuals can often make a more informed decision than any one person. Surowiecki also points out that the crowd is far from infallible. He explains that good crowd judgements require people’s decisions to be made independently rather than be influenced by others. The undermining effect of social influence was demonstrated by a group at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in 2011. The Swiss team commented that a detrimental herding effect is likely to be even stronger for deciding problems for which no objective answer exists, which perhaps explains how democratic countries occasionally elect astonishingly inept leaders.
Then again, sometimes, voters are just stupid. Adolf Hitler, Hugo Chavez and Christina Kirchner were all elected heads of state. Americans are supposed to be better than that. Our heritage of independent thought and actions should require a minimum standard of character that would prevent bad people from being elected. Closer examination of this assertion shows that such high expectations are not based in fact. According to exit polls, Bill Clinton won re-election in 1996 in part because 58% of poll respondents cited issues as being more important than a candidate’s character when it came time to deciding their vote.
If character issues are not alone enough to disqualify a political candidate, all manner of charlatans and crooks become eligible to lead us. When most voters believe all politicians lie and cheat, you wind up with leading Republican presidential candidates wholly unprepared by relevant experience to lead. If we don’t demand a higher standard of ethics and behavior from our leaders than we may perhaps require of ourselves, we deserve to be lied to, misled and cheated.