“Few men are willing to brave the disapproval of their fellows, the censure of their colleagues, the wrath of their society. Moral courage is a rarer commodity than bravery in battle or great intelligence. Yet it is the one essential, vital quality of those who seek to change a world which yields most painfully to change. Aristotle tells us that ‘At the Olympic games it is not the finest and the strongest men who are crowned, but they who enter the lists … So too in the life of the honorable and the good it is they who act rightly who win the prize.’ I believe that in this generation those with the courage to enter the moral conflict will find themselves with companions in every corner of the world.” – Senator Robert F. Kennedy, June 6, 1966, Capetown, South Africa.
Yesterday’s arrest of forty-four individuals, including three mayors and two state lawmakers, came as no surprise to observers of New Jersey politics. Since 2001, over 100 elected officials have pled or been found guilty on corruption related charges. The list is long, and I fear that with each plea bargain and guilty verdict our people lose confidence in their ability to pursue social change and right what is wrong in our communities today. The situation we find ourselves in calls for a reorientation of the progressive agenda and the dedication of ourselves and our resources to the cause of reform.
American progressivism took shape because individuals summoned the moral courage to combat corruption. At the turn of the twentieth century, graft and bribe taking were part and parcel of political life. In spite of this, and against massive odds, progressive reformers refused to consign politics to the politicians and squared off against entrenched interests to accomplish the unthinkable: they won. Their work resulted in advancements in labor law, public health, environmental conservation, financial regulation, electoral reform, and most significant to today, the first campaign finance laws.
As the events of yesterday and the arrests of the last few years make clear, New Jersey has a problem with official corruption. We cannot rely on the ways of the past to change the culture of permissiveness that dominates Trenton and so many town halls across this state. We must insist that our elected officials close the loopholes in campaign finance laws that allow “wheeling,” the free flow of political contributions from county party to county party. We must insist upon the renewal and expansion of the Clean Elections Program. And most importantly, state lawmakers must finally implement a comprehensive ban on pay-to-play at all levels of state government.
New Jersey will mitigate the depth and breadth of corruption when we eliminate the corrosive influence of money in our political system. There are thousands of honest public servants who serve the people each day. Yet for too long right thinking members of both political parties have kept quiet on these issues for fear of finding themselves placed at a political disadvantage. With confidence in the system the lowest it’s been in living memory, our silence now equals complicity. Party interest must yield to the public good.
Today, in the aftermath of yet another embarrassing example of corruption, the myriad policy challenges confronting state and local government remain. We have differences in fiscal policy to resolve, inequalities to remedy, schools to improve, and an environment that deserves our protection. To move forward, public servants must work to regain the people’s confidence in the institutions of government. That will happen, not by denigrating public service, but by stepping into the arena and advocating the reforms necessary to recover our integrity. We find ourselves engaged in a moral conflict. We battle not only the enablers and perpetrators of corruption, but the forces of cynicism who say that changing New Jersey’s political culture is an impossible undertaking. This is a battle for the trust of the public we seek to serve. There are few better causes. Whether one enters this moral conflict is an individual choice, but I have cause for optimism: New Jerseyans never shy away from a good fight.