New Jersey's only second-best (to New York) when it comes to disgraceful politicians: Opinion

April 15, 2013

If you take perverse pleasure in believing that New Jersey is the most corrupt, worst-governed state in the union, well, times have gotten tough, haven’t they?

Back in the day, why, you could point with pride to the never-ending perp walks of the rich and infamous, generally arranged by the U.S. Attorney’s Office. What other state could boast of a political scandal that involved, however tangentially, the sale of human kidneys? In what other state could political grafters be fooled by preposterous government informants posing as favor-seekers?

For years, you proudly told visitors that New Jersey politics was a real-life episode of “The Sopranos.”

You tried very hard and with great determination to pay no attention to the shenanigans just a few miles away in New York. A governor caught with a prostitute? Nothing compared with New Jersey’s sex scandals. A comptroller who steered state pension funds to a wealthy campaign contributor? Penny-ante stuff. Heck, New Jersey invented pay-to-play.

But now, well, you’re beginning to wonder if maybe — just maybe — things are worse east of the Hudson. That realization ought to make you feel a little bit better, but if you’re a confirmed self-loathing New Jerseyan, you’re probably feeling a little down.

After all, in a span of just 48 hours last week, prosecutors in New York busted up a ridiculous scheme designed to rig the city’s Republican mayoral primary and then arrested a member of the state Legislature on bribery charges — after the honorable member was caught on tape talking about the scheme.

He happened to be talking to another member of the Assembly, who was wearing a wire. That particular fashion statement was part of a deal the informant cut when he was indicted for perjury a few years ago. Now every lawmaker and lobbyist in Albany is wondering who else might be working for the feds — and what conversations they may have recorded.

The New York Public Interest Research Group estimates that, over the past seven years, nearly 40 state officials — from Gov. Eliot Spitzer to a long list of state legislators — have had to leave office in disgrace or, at the very least, have been sanctioned in some other way because of ethical lapses.

Almost 40! And that doesn’t count the many municipal and county officials in New York who have had unpleasant encounters with law enforcement in the recent past. Nor does it take into account political operatives such as two top campaign aides for New York City Comptroller John Liu, who were indicted last year on fraud and conspiracy charges. Liu, who has not been accused of any wrongdoing, is running for mayor this year anyway and is considered one of the front-runners for the Democratic Party’s nomination.

And let’s spend just a few seconds pondering the imminent return of former Brooklyn congressman Anthony Weiner, who last week showed strong interest in becoming a candidate for mayor. Weiner, you may remember, resigned from Congress after revelations that he posted pictures of himself in his underwear for the admiration of his virtual followers. Then he lied about it.

Only in New York.

Here’s one way of looking at political scandals that may inspire a little Jersey pride. Consider the resignations of two recent governors on both sides of the Hudson. Jim McGreevey resigned as governor of New Jersey amid a gay sex scandal. He retreated to a life of reflection and prayer, and now counsels prisoners. Eliot Spitzer resigned as governor of New York after consorting with a prostitute. He went on to host a political talk show and is a frequent commentator on local and national politics. There is talk of a political comeback in his future.

Which scandal offers a better lesson in the power of humility and redemption?

New Jersey simply can’t match New York’s extraordinary production of possible and future felons from the political classes in recent years. This means either one of three things: Prosecutors in New Jersey are on sabbatical — not likely — or every crooked pol in the state is in custody — ditto — or, yes, maybe the state isn’t quite as bad as some have insisted.

As a former reporter who covered New York for many years and New Jersey for a few, I’ve always believed that while the Garden State may produce more colorful rogues than other states, it can’t match the Empire State’s collective rap sheet.

The honorable Assemblyman was caught on tape uttering those words — as he allegedly plotted to take a $20,000 bribe from a crooked developer.In the words of Assemblyman Eric Stevenson of the Bronx: “If half of the people up here in Albany was ever caught for what they do,” they’d wind up in prison.

Do we really want to believe that somehow our legislators are even worse than that? And stupider?

Sometimes you just have to let it go. Let’s allow New York to claim the crown as worst-governed state in the union.

Is that so bad?