Atlantic City Mayor Frank Gilliam was forced to resign last week after he got caught taking money from kids in the very city he’d taken an oath to serve. His sympathy ploy — he said having to leave office left him with a "heavy heart” — was memorably self-serving, but his sorry little narrative is unlikely to become the stuff of Boardwalk Empire-style nostalgia. The story of a guy who took contributions meant for the nonprofit youth basketball program he cofounded, in order to buy himself what federal court documents described as “luxury designer suits,” is hardly entertaining.
What should interest the public is the fact that Gilliam is the fourth Atlantic City mayor since the 1980s to run afoul of the law. Likewise three mayors of Camden, a similarly impoverished city getting special attention from Trenton. Is being under state oversight a coincidence in the more recent cases? That’s impossible to know but worth debating. Of course, not only urban politicians are vulnerable to corruption: The federal “Bid Rig” probe of 2009 led to 44 arrests of Garden State officials, clergy, and local politicians, among them two suburban mayors.
Those tempted to speculate whether some corruption-causing substance permeates New Jersey’s water supply would be wise to remember that such a toxin evidently is abundant in Philadelphia, too. Former U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah and onetime Pennsylvania former State Sen. Vincent J. Fumo are just two city pols who found the availability of easy money too hard to resist — and share with Gilliam connections to nonprofit entities that either were established for or diverted to fraudulent uses. Clearly, there’s a need for more effective monitoring and tighter requirements for elected officials involved in such enterprises.
Popular culture — The Sopranos and its New Jersey milieu come to mind — has long enshrined some mobsters as lovable anti-heroes, and some criminals, politicians among them, as admirable rogues. Like Nucky Johnson, (Jersey again!), they’re portrayed as an authentic American brand. This mythology is at work in our transactional politics and especially in the triumph of profoundly transactional politicians like President Trump. Big money and bigger egos have helped create a rarefied and insular world within which the rules most of us mere mortals try to live by are superseded or suspended by the pursuit of a purported greater good.
Neither ego nor money nor New Jersey are likely to be eliminated from politics. But Brigid Harrison, professor of political science and law at Montclair State University, suggests that ethics training for newly elected officeholders might be a deterrent. Organizations such as the League of Municipalities, in partnership with the state, could enumerate the legal and financial costs in a manner convincing enough to penetrate the armor men and women require or acquire in order to get elected. Ethical standards can trickle-down from the top; Gov. Phil Murphy has an opportunity to take a strong leadership role — like he’s done to rein in the runaway tax incentives program he inherited.