Did you catch the latest news out of Virginia? No, not Eric Cantor’s primary defeat. No, not former Governor Bob McDonnell’s first public appearance since being brought up corruption charges. No, not even the score from last night’s Game 1 of the College World Series which saw Virginia lose to Vanderbilt.
The latest news is all about a man named Phillip Puckett. Up until recently, he was a four term State Senator from a semi-conservative district in the state’s western coal country. Given that the area has starting leaning farther to the right, Puckett was unsurprisingly known to be a more conservative kind of Democrat. In 2011, for example, he was the first Democratic legislator to come out and say that he would not campaign for President Obama. Despite this, he still voted with his fellow Democrats on several issues.
Then two weeks ago, he resigned.
There have been several explanations for this, but the facts are that Puckett’s daughter was up for confirmation as a judge to one of the state’s district courts and that Puckett was discussing taking a job with the state’s Tobacco Commission, a body headed by a Republican state legislator.
The kicker is that his resignation has changed the balance in the State Senate. Where once 20 Democrats were countered by 20 Republicans (and the tie breaking vote going to the Democratic Lt. Governor), the Virginia GOP now has the majority of the votes.
This means that the gridlock surrounding the state budget due to the ongoing fight between the Democratic Governor and the state Republicans over Medicaid expansion has come to an end. The Republicans had control of both chambers of the legislature and have vetoed McAuliffe’s attempts to bring Obamacare to the Old Dominion.
It seems Puckett’s decision to leave was motivated by promises of the Tobacco Commission job and his daughter’s confirmation, so much so that the US Department of Justice and the FBI are now looking into it. In short, it appears that Virginia Republicans dangled a big enough carrot in front of Puckett so that he would hop down from his seat and allow the party to further its own goals.
I point all this out not to shame the Republicans, though they deserve it. Democrats in Virginia or anywhere else would like have done the same if given the chance; no party in America has the moral high ground. Look at the ways in which, once in power, both parties gerrymander political districts. Regardless of who’s in charge, the pathway to, and maintaining, power is often the same.
The real reason I bring this to your attention because this is what corruption in America looks like. More importantly, this is a clear example that corruption absolutely does happen here.
Or perhaps worse, we sneer at the thought of it and write it off as politics as usual. When we think politics, we naturally assume that corruption is part of the process. You scratch my back and I’ll make your daughter a judge and so on. In either case, we’re only doing ourselves a disservice. Corruption unchecked will surely only lead to further corruption. Down the rabbit hole we go and suddenly we’re stuck in a society where nothing can be accomplished until the proper wheels are greased (a cynic might say we’re already there). What’s more, it pushes those who aren’t already on the inside farther out.
More often than not, it’s due to a lack of transparency. When those deals are brokered, they happen behind closed doors without the public’s knowledge, who sometimes only find out once it’s too late. Scholars are divided as to whether or not corruption is more likely at the center of government (Washington DC in the case of the U.S.) or at the local level. Regardless, it is still important for us to push programs at all levels that promote transparent governance, avoid nepotism, and punish guilty parties properly.
Sometimes spotting corruption might even seem downright boring. Think about the mayor who pushes through new zoning laws because his wife happens to own a construction company. Or consider the city council president who uses government vehicles to pick her kids up from school. It might seem small, but it adds up.
It’s important, therefore, for us to keep watch. That could mean being part of a civic organization or neighborhood association that looks after the needs of the community (or starting one). It might mean contacting lawmakers to write better ethics laws and not quieting down until it happens. Sometimes, it’s as simple as attending a town hall meeting held by a Congressman or a County Commission to voice your opinion and making sure you’re heard (and taking it to the media or online if you aren’t). Whatever the case, real change happens when public outcry reaches a tipping point. Sometimes you might have to start the anthem, but with enough time, you may find that a chorus will join you and make it loud enough.
In the end, it’s important to remember that government exists to meet the needs of the people. It does not exist to line the pockets of those in power. So let Puckett be a reminder. Corruption in the West isn’t just something on House of Cards or anywhere else on TV; it’s alive and well. As citizens, it remains our duty to guard against it.