Weiner's Comeback Bid Smacks of Desperation
Disgraced former Congressman Anthony Weiner is back in the news with his long-shot bid to become New York City Mayor. Although polls show he has more name recognition than other candidates (a dubious distinction in his case), Weiner's comeback bid smacks of desperation. He's never done anything else in his adult life and has been underemployed since being forced to resign from Congress.
Weiner grew up in a political culture that provides the well-connected with a lifelong job in politics, and often creates public servants who wind up, like Weiner, overconfident, self-important and out of touch with the people they claim to represent. Force them out of their secure political world and they are lost and impotent.
New York isn't alone in generating this sort of politics-for-life figure. Though we want our public servants to be thoughtful and capable, and even sometimes demand they be experienced when they have to deal with weighty policy issues, the term ‘professional politician' has become synonymous in many places with a lifetime sinecure at the public's expense. These folks don't necessarily bring you better government, as evidenced by polls showing citizens in states with the most expensive and best-paid legislatures generally rate their performance very low.
Consider Weiner. He jumped into the public arena shortly after graduating from college, when he went to work for the man who was to become his early mentor, Chuck Schumer, as an aide to the then-Congressman. At 27, Weiner made his first run at public office, winning a seat on the New York City council after a bruising race in which his campaign issued divisive pamphlets that connected his opponents to some controversial black figures in New York in the aftermath of the Crown Heights riots. The disapproval he later earned for those tactics was a small price to pay for earning a seat on the city council in a one-party town where, once elected, you've got a secure job. From there Weiner won his old boss Schumer's former seat in Congress in 1998, whence he remained until his self-destructed thanks to his 2011 sexting scandal.
Weiner is making his comeback bid even as another New York politician who has spent much of his working life on the public payroll battles to save his career amid reports he sexually harassed staffers. Vito Lopez began his life in politics after founding a government-funded nonprofit whose work with public dollars made him a powerful community figure in Queens and Brooklyn and helped get him elected to the state legislature nearly 30 years ago. Lopez's nonprofit empire grew along with his clout in Albany, so that by 2010 his nonprofit operations were receiving $75 million annually in New York City government contracts alone, even as he served as a powerful elected official with influence over legislation affecting the city that paid his organization so handsomely. Along the way, say investigations, he subjected female staffers to "forced intimate contact" and made suggestions that they wear more provocative clothing. The legislative leadership secretly made payoffs of taxpayer money to quiet his victims. Pressured to resign amid revelations of his actions, Lopez has announced he'd finally end his Albany career, but only to run for the New York City Council.
Perhaps these politicians are encouraged by the recent comeback of former South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford, whose political career seemed dead after his extra-marital affair in 2009. Sanford, who began in politics when he was elected to the House of Representatives at the age of 35 after successfully establishing his own real estate business, is on his way back to Congress after his victory in a South Carolina special election earlier this month. He won a crowded Republican primary to earn his way onto the ballot thanks to his name recognition and his reputation as a fiscal hawk, something that apparently resonated in his conservative district more than his personal foibles.
The entrenched culture of the professional politician often contributes to our biggest policy failings. Our states and cities, for instance, face potentially trillions of dollars in unfunded retirement liabilities whose costs are now pinching budgets and gobbling up tax dollars. Reform has been slow and what we owe has continued to grow. One reason is because politicians have given themselves a big stake in the very systems they are supposed to be changing. They've arranged retirement perks so that they not only can enjoy a comfortable life as an elected official, but also a cozy retirement.
Residents of Chicago learned last year, for instance, that former Mayor Richard Daley, who had gone from state legislator to county attorney to mayor over a 40-year career, used a loophole in Illinois law to tie together all of his pension credits from these jobs and boost his final retirement pay by $50,000 annually to a hefty $180,000, even as he complained that government worker pensions were going to bankrupt his city.
Professional politicians without an income elsewhere often exempt themselves from what they demand of others. New Jersey is a state that has enacted pension reform that requires public workers to contribute more to their retirement and to forego some benefits. But the legislation that created this did nothing to stop a loophole that allows legislators to ‘retire' once they have accumulated enough credits for a pension but keep serving in the legislature and collecting their salaries at the same time, something that other government workers can't do. One legislator who took a $36,000 pension on top of a $49,000 salary for a job that is considered "part-time" in Jersey justified her actions by claiming that she'd lost money invested with Bernie Madoff. If only the rest of Madoff's victims had such a soft landing.
It becomes increasingly harder to argue that there's a big payoff from investing public dollars to ensure a professional class of politician. California, for instance, has the country's most expensive legislature, and members receive the highest salaries for state lawmakers, starting at $95,000 annually. Yet in a recent poll only 22 percent of voters said they were satisfied with the performance of the legislature. In New York, where starting pay is 79,500 annually for legislators but with committee assignments they often earn more than $100,000, the most commonly used term to describe the legislature is ‘dysfunctional.'
By contrast, the second biggest state, Texas, is governed by a part-time body where base pay is $7,200 annually. No wonder that a citizens initiative in California is gathering momentum to transform the legislature there back to a part-time body.
Politics seems to be that rare field with an inverse relationship between what you earn and the way that people who pay your salary rate you. No wonder so many elected officials seem desperate to do anything they can to avoid getting a real job.