Only in New Jersey: Power Corrupts

“Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

As I was writing this column, it struck me that Lord Acton, who uttered that famous phrase, would have had a field day in the Garden State. Then a funny thing happened: Our legislators actually took action on a particularly odious perk of public service—the tradition of dual officeholding.

Can members of the state Assembly or Senate also serve as mayor or council member in their hometown? No problem. In fact, they usually find time to handle legal or medical practices, real estate offices, or whatever other day jobs they have.

Now, I am not claiming that every legislator who holds several offices (which, admittedly, don’t pay much—except in pension potential) is inherently compromised, but dual officeholding invites conflicts of interest, tests loyalties, and potentially corrupts. Right now, twenty members of the New Jersey Legislature also hold local offices. That’s a huge block of votes: A state senator might represent ten municipalities while also being an elected official in one of them. Are we to believe that his or her commitment to all of these communities is the same?

Big shocker here, but our state has more dual officeholders than any other. The issue has generated a lot of heat—news stories and editorials—and years of promises to stop the madness. I have always said, “One office to a customer.” I was even willing to say, “Keep the multiple titles, but you only get one pension.”

That could work—even in New Jersey. Then legislators beat me to it, although they “grandfathered” all present dual officeholders. Congratulations, sort of.

Your honor…

Speaking of ridiculous political traditions, only here could we have a Statehouse scam called senatorial courtesy.

Sounds like a genteel nod to long-ago policies, right? Wrong. Governor Jon Corzine nominated state Attorney General Stuart Rabner to become chief justice of the state Supreme Court, taking over for James Zazzali, the esteemed jurist who had to step down because state law mandates that you clean out your desk one minute after your 70th birthday.

Rabner is eminently qualified and has the support of the judicial community and anyone else who understands the power-shaping role of the Supreme Court and its chief justice. But  Senator Nia Gill (D–Montclair) held up the bid. She happens to live in the same county as Rabner, who lives in Caldwell.

By rule, senators from the home county of a nominee can block the motion—and aren’t compelled to publicly state what their opposition is based on. Gill didn’t. Senatorial courtesy isn’t written into the state constitution. It’s just an option for grandstanding  in our off-the-wall political culture.

Rabner, the outgoing attorney general, nabbed Zazzali’s slot in a nail-biter—35–1. Remind me where the “courtesy” part comes in…

Only in New Jersey does passing the 2007–08 state budget on time warrant laudatory front-page coverage. It sure didn’t happen last year, when the state shut down for the first week of July.

Picture this: It’s two decades ago, late on June 30. Legislative leaders are in a closed-door session with then Governor Tom Kean, haggling and working out “Christmas tree” bargaining chips to close the deal. As a rookie legislator, I’m petrified, thinking, It’s 11:58 pm and we have to legally pass this budget by midnight…It’s the law! I picture state troopers arresting us. (I’m only kinda kidding.)

No agreement in sight, seconds from midnight—so what do we do? We literally freeze time. If the Statehouse clock doesn’t strike midnight, then it isn’t midnight…

Finally, well past midnight, the deal was reached, the governor signed, and the Statehouse clocks were reset to “officially” begin a new fiscal year. It’s one more of our unwritten political traditions.

Boy, I miss my days in Trenton. (Totally kidding on that one.)

Steve Adubato, PhD, is an Emmy Award-winning anchor for Thirteen/WNET and a media analyst for MSNBC. He provides commentary on talk radio station 770-WABC. He is the author of Speak from the Heart. E-mail him at [email protected]

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