Scandals alter pols’ tunes; will voters listen?

By: - January 23, 2006 12:00 am

Prompted by an undercover FBI sting that led to the indictment of five state lawmakers on bribery charges, Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen (D) called the Legislature into special session this month to tighten the state’s ethics laws.

“On the topic of ethics, it is time for bold action,” he told a joint session, attended by two of the indicted legislators, on Jan. 10. “Bold action is required. Prompt action is required. And visible action is required.”

Bredesen’s call for action comes as politicians across the country try to allay voter concerns about government corruption, an issue likely to come up in this year’s elections for both state and federal posts.

Besides the bribe-taking allegedly exposed in the FBI’s Operation Tennessee Waltz last year, scandals are making news in more than a dozen states at a time when key members of Congress and the Bush administration are under a cloud as well. Political experts caution, though, that the string of scandals won’t necessarily translate into big changes in control of state or federal government on Election Day.

Among the reasons scandal will keep coming up this election year:

  • The once formidable Ohio Republican Party is regrouping after Gov. Bob Taft (R) became the first governor of the Buckeye State convicted of a crime while in office. Taft pleaded guilty last August to misdemeanor charges of failing to report numerous gifts from lobbyists, including dinners and golf outings.
  • Meanwhile, Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich and Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle, both Democrats running for re-election, face scrutiny over whether lucrative state contracts were steered to their campaign contributors. In both states, high-publicity corruption trials of former officeholders are under way or will be soon.
  • In Kentucky, Republican Gov. Ernie Fletcher is fending off allegations that his administration circumvented state hiring rules to award posts to political allies.
  • Former Alabama Gov. Don Siegelman (D), now running to recapture that post, is also fighting federal charges that he took bribes in exchange for lucrative contracts.
  • Former U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R) was indicted in Texas for laundering corporate money into campaign donations. He now faces scrutiny for his ties with lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who pleaded guilty to a bribery scheme this month.
  • Last year, a special prosecutor charged I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, then Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff, with perjury for misleading prosecutors looking into the leak of a covert CIA agent’s identity to reporters.
  • Tennessee’s Bill Frist, the Republican majority leader in the U.S. Senate, faces two federal probes looking into possible violations of regulations governing stock market transactions.

By calling a special session of the Tennessee Legislature, Bredesen is forcing lawmakers to tackle his ethics proposals before they get on to other legislative business or hit the campaign trail.

Ethics reforms such as those proposed by Bredesen commonly follow scandal – even though the conduct that caused the outrage was often clearly illegal in the first place. Shortly after his speech, Bredesen acknowledged as much. “This is not simply about bribery. That was illegal last year and 100 years ago. … It’s a change of culture here,” he said.

He said his proposals would end the “coziness” between legislators and lobbyists in Nashville by tightening up rules on cash campaign contributions and perks lawmakers can receive from lobbyists.

Republican Ron Ramsey, the Tennessee Senate’s majority leader, backs far-reaching reforms like the ones Bredesen proposed. “What we’re going to do is build a guardrail, so if you get off the road, you know you’ve gotten off the road. You had to jump across the guardrail to get out,” he said.

Reassuring citizens that lawmakers are cleaning up government can help limit fallout at the polls.

Marcus Pohlmann, a political science professor at Rhodes College in Memphis, said the biggest effect might be that scandal-weary voters simply sit out this year’s elections. “People are more likely to come out for someone than to vote against them. When people are just angry, they’re more likely to stay at home,” Pohlmann said.

In addition, he said only officials directly connected to the bribery investigation likely will face repercussions at the ballot box.

Of the four indicted state senators – all Democrats – two have stepped down and two remain in office. A Republican House member who was indicted pleaded guilty and resigned. In addition, following Bredesen’s speech, a top GOP senator gave up his leadership post and said he would not seek re-election. The former caucus leader, Sen. Jeff Miller, previously admitted that he took what he called a campaign contribution of $1,000 from the FBI’s front company. He has not been charged with a crime.

Politicians of both parties have been tarred by scandal, but Republicans could suffer worse than Democrats do nationwide, said Larry Jacobs, director of the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota.

If corruption charges in Washington, D.C., overwhelmingly target Republican politicians, loyal GOP voters could lose heart while Democrats are energized, he said. That could make previously safe districts more competitive, he said. So far, though, voters are only vaguely aware of Abramoff’s and DeLay’s troubles, Jacobs said.

Republicans have more to lose because they’re in power at the federal level and control a majority of the governors’ offices and legislatures, he said.

Nancy Todd, the chairman of the American Association of Political Consultants, cautioned that while it might be tempting for a challenger to make a big deal about corruption, the strategy could backfire. Voters generally dislike finger-pointing, she said. Plus, candidates who run on reform platforms will be held to even higher ethical standards.

“I would think very long and hard about wearing a white hat,” said Todd, a Las Vegas consultant who specializes in gaming issues.

Harvey J. Tucker, a professor of political science at Texas A&M University, said few incumbents are truly in danger of losing their jobs even though scandals keep cropping up in headlines.

Legislative and congressional districts are drawn to insulate officeholders, and voters often focus their anger on lawmakers from outside of those districts, Tucker said. Even if scandals are sweeping the nation, “all elections are state-level or smaller,” he said.

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