Now that state Sen. Ron Calderon’s formerly sealed FBI affidavit has been leaked, we can once again watch another thread of American democracy being frayed.
The Founding Fathers built a strong, beautiful, almost mathematical constitution. It has held up remarkably well more than 226 years, despite the best efforts of quite a number of elected officials to shred it. Our individual states also have done a remarkable job of keeping their state constitutions intact, and many well-intentioned, talented, remarkable people have held office in California and 49 other states.
But some people never get the memo.
I am still constantly amazed when I see brazen, flagrant, rampant corruption in politics. I am also constantly amazed that I’m constantly amazed, because I’m a political cartoonist who dines out on this sort of thing. Back in Minnesota, I worked in politics when I was a teenager in the 1970s. I never had a responsible position, really, except for the time when I had to learn how to work (for the first time in my life) a manual transmission from a congressional candidate for whom I was a ... driver.
But I also remember why I was interested in politics. I found it inspiring and was inspired by several people: JFK, Hubert Humphrey, Fritz Mondale and a few others. Naturally, I also enjoyed the public contact of the whole thing, but never one time did I ever think: “Wow, I could make serious, ethically questionable money doing this.” Never.
I just thought politics was a way to expand my love of debate and being captain of my KSTP-TV High School Bowl Quiz team.
Quick, ask me a question about the New Deal. The answer is almost always Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Reading the transcript of Sen. Calderon’s FBI affidavit is a depressing exercise, because it is so familiar. Politician gets elected in a safe district, feels invincible, wants to live the high life that the wealthy interests who seek to influence him dangle before his eyes, and he makes the Faustian bargain so many politicians have made.
In Calderon’s case, he allegedly made all sorts of little deals with undercover agents to get some money for his college-age children: fake jobs, blank checks, and so on. Anyone who isn’t wealthy and who has kids in college knows the feeling. I feel like I write $3,200 checks every 18 hours. Oh, and they also need a little walking-around money, like lobbyists.
In California, state legislators are well-compensated, particularly in relation to those in other states. They earn more than $100,000 per year, which is certainly well above the economic level of the vast majority of their constituents. In Oregon, state legislators make about $30,000 per year, including per diem. The consequence of this is that Oregon has either wealthy legislators or people who are willing to serve at a huge financial sacrifice, living like monks. Mostly, they aren’t going to Vegas and drinking champagne out of a slipper.
The other consequence is this: There aren’t a lot of middle-class legislators, particularly at the congressional level. Most of America is middle class. Are they represented? Probably not as well as they could be.
In 2011, 47 percent of the members of Congress were millionaires.
That doesn’t line up, really, with the median net worth of the American people, which is $77,000. That’s $923,000 shy of 1 million, last time I checked.
So, here we are. Another politician (allegedly) goes for the gold in a sleazy manner, and we watch. It ratifies our now-common view of politicians, which is too bad. I met a man the other night who sits on a county board of supervisors in our region. He wasn’t slick, he showed up at a small event in a small place, and, as far I can tell, he was doing what these folks are supposed to be doing: serving.