Blagojevich, Fumo, and us

Posted: December 17, 2008

THE SPECTACULAR charges against Illinois Gov. Ron Blagojevich - he stands accused of trying to sell Barack Obama's vacant Senate seat to the highest bidder - are sadly less shocking in Philadelphia than elsewhere. We're accustomed to corruption among the political class.

Hell, we even dine out on the stories. But maybe the sheer volume of recent scandals will prompt the kind of outrage that leaves elected officials scared to even think of abusing the public trust.

Besides trying to sell the vacant Senate seat, the Illinois governor allegedly was routinely buying and selling his office in exchange for favors. The U.S. attorney called it a "political crime spree."

Does Blagojevich's mind-set seem familiar? His attitude is eerily similar to how indicted state Sen. Vincent Fumo reportedly viewed the hard-earned tax dollars we send to Harrisburg as "other people's money" or OPM. According to federal prosecutors, Fumo used public dollars as his own personal piggy-bank for political work and personal errands.

Blagojevich and Fumo appear to have regarded the public interest as nothing more than a distraction from their own personal ambitions.

It's hard to know which is more frightening - the fact that Fumo and Blagojevich allegedly sought to enrich themselves or that they thought they could get away with it. That level of hubris is possible only if politicians become isolated from the daily challenges facing ordinary citizens.

But it doesn't help that we all are complicit in that hubris. We let them get away with it, shrugging it off, or even rationalizing it, as in the case of Fumo's ability to bring home some of the bacon, while allegedly keeping plenty for himself.

And that speaks to a political culture that puts voter's self-interest above the greater good. We want public money for our roads and bridges, but bristle at the idea of paying taxes to provide services to other parts of the region, or even other parts of the city. We shrug our shoulders at local corruption, glad that our elected officials are at least skilled at playing the insider's game of government. But corrupt and competent shouldn't be the standard. We need a citizenry that is ready to show up with pitchforks and torches at the slightest hint of public betrayal.

We get the government we deserve. Isn't it time we decided to fight for a better one? *

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