It's been almost two months since "corruption Thursday" - that day in July when 44 people, including many New Jersey political leaders, were led into federal court in handcuffs. Since that time, I hope New Jerseyans have not forgotten the shame and embarrassment these supposed leaders brought to our state. They have perpetuated a stereotype of New Jersey I have spent my life fighting, and they once again shattered what little trust the voters have in their elected officials. While political corruption is unfortunately an all-too-common occurrence in our state, I hope that these latest arrests - if only for their sheer magnitude - will motivate New Jerseyans to say, "Enough is enough."
After all, the impact of this corruption goes beyond negative headlines. New Jerseyans must understand that corruption is a primary force behind high state taxes. Corruption is a corroding force that not only tarnishes reputations, but also erodes the value of our dollars. Every time an elected official accepts a bribe from a developer or a bidder on a state contract, he or she is accepting a higher cost for a service that New Jersey needs. In some ways, taxpayers are being fooled twice. We pay the cost of this corruption every time an elected official abuses our trust and then hands us the bill.
The blame for this corruption lies squarely with the elected officials who engage in it. Yet there are institutions and structures in place that make corruption an easy, if not appealing, option. Michael Barbaro said it well in The New York Times, noting that "New Jersey is divided into hundreds of tiny fiefdoms, where part-time elected officials … wield considerable power, and the heady mix of arrogance, control and promised payoffs dissolves the will of even the most determined reformer." To be sure, the abundance of government layers - from municipal to county and sometimes in between - and the countless commissions, boards and committees that help govern our state give far too many people the sense that they can take their piece of the pie with impunity.
While this issue is a complex one that won't be solved immediately, there are some steps we can take now to stop corruption in its tracks:
First, we can once and for all fully end the practice of dual office holding. Public officials who hold multiple political offices have a conflict of interest -period. Unfortunately, current dual office holders were exempt from the ban that was recently passed. This is a gaping loophole that should be closed immediately.
We should also support a strong media. A vibrant third estate ensures some semblance of government transparency and brings accountability to our elected leaders. While I have certainly had my share of frustrating experiences with the press, I recognize that the media bring the facts to the voters in a direct and accessible way. We need to promote strong New Jersey-focused media and not rely on getting short shrift from New York and Philadelphia sources.
Finally, and most importantly, we need to vote. Nineteen of the 44 individuals arrested in the recent roundup were from Hudson County. It is no coincidence that the primary turnout in Hudson in the last election was a paltry 31 percent. At the end of the day, elected officials have continued their corrupt practices because the voters - at least those who show up - simply re-elect them. We will not stop these corrupt individuals until we vote them out of office. We cannot simply rely on the U.S. Attorney's Office to do what is in our own power - hold elected officials accountable.
Without these reforms, I am confident that the parade of handcuffed politicians will continue. It is time for voters to take a stand against egregious abuses of the public trust. With contests for governor, Assembly and a host of local offices, this fall's election is the perfect opportunity for New Jerseyans to take a stand and fire those who have broken the public trust.
Christine Todd Whitman, former Republican governor of New Jersey and administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, is president of The Whitman Strategy Group, an environmental consulting firm.