ATLANTA -- For the newly elected officials who thought winning a heated campaign was the hard part, some veteran politicians and operatives have a little advice.
It may be of interest to voters concerned about public corruption as well.
The overwhelming majority of voters during the July primary’s straw poll favored a limit or outright ban on what lobbyists can give officeholders. Though non-binding, the vote was widely seen as a message to politicians to clean up their ethics and to legislators to restrict gifts.
“I do know that the citizens of Georgia are suspicious,” said Elana Parent, a former Democratic legislator from Atlanta who now heads the Georgia Watch consumer advocacy.
Last year, a freshman senator did introduce a gift-ban bill, but some of the more seasoned hands in the leadership stalled it, especially House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge. He warned that while a strict law may seem like a simple solution, it could backfire if the threat of stiff fines or excessive paperwork led to under-the-table activity.
In some states with so-called prohibitions on even buying a cup of coffee for a politician, abuse is reportedly widespread. In some, lobbyists are pressured to make campaign contributions instead. In others, unlimited gifts are made to political parties which then dole out legal largess to the politicians.
One foolproof way to avoid ethics scandals is for officials to set a personal policy from the beginning to refuse all gifts, meals and event tickets. It is easier to stick to the pledge at the beginning of a career because the big temptations come with seniority and power.
Most people don’t get better looking or wittier with age even if their jokes draw louder laughter and pretty, young aides flirt more. It happens to business executives and Army generals, too.
As former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger once said of his celebrity girlfriends, “Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac.”
Power’s spell isn’t limited to starlets or twentysomethings. It can also cloud the thinking of the crusty politicians who hold it.
That’s what makes ego a bigger weakness for politicians than greed, according to most insiders.
“Politicians are ego driven. You’re asking someone to pick you over other people,” said House Democratic Leader Stacey Abrams of Atlanta.
Most people believe they’re capable and smart, but only those with more ego than modesty solicit other people for money to advertise their name all over town.
As one old hand put it, “Don’t complain. You asked for this job. In fact, you begged for it.”
The Hollywood shorthand for a corrupt politician is one who becomes dependent on campaign contributions, lobbyists’ gifts and outright graft as if there were a bright line dividing honest from dishonest. But even politicians with personal wealth require campaign donations, so it makes it difficult to eschew all donations.
Lobbyists say the purpose of donations isn’t to make a legislator feel beholden or to create a conflict of interest. Instead, the meals and golf outings are an opportunity for ego stroking and the building of rapport.
A legislator who attends meetings with corporate executives and high-paid lobbyists begins to feel an equal or even superior to the crowd around him. Association with such lavish “friends” leads to rationalizing the use of campaign funds to lease luxury cars, buy flowers for associates and other expenditures dangerously close to illegal personal uses.
Soon such outings become more important than a son’s soccer games or town-hall meetings with constituents. After all, voters and family occasionally lose their temper, but fawning lobbyists and legislative aides always remain respectful and courteous.
Those trips and steak dinners and football tickets aren’t part of the job description, and there are politicians with influence who stay informed without participating in such outings, who buy their own meals, watch football at home and stay true to a spouse. It’s when a politician begins to feel entitled to those freebies and the other trappings of office that danger lurks.
The danger may not come as a messy scandal but rather the loss of credibility with colleagues or losing touch with the voters. The cause is the same, even if the symptoms appear different.
There are many things that can shorten a political career: redistricting, a drunk-driving arrest, an ethics scandal, an affair and so on. Most are self-inflicted.
That’s why the politicians who survive are always mindful that they see their biggest political threat every morning in the mirror. It’s a good habit to pick up as a rookie.