More than a century ago, a muckraking journalist named Lincoln Steffens described Philadelphia as “corrupt and contented.”
A lot of Pennsylvanians would still nod in agreement at that description of the big city on the banks of the Delaware that they love to hate.
But the phrase could just as easily apply to their state capital, the middle-sized city on the banks of the Susquehanna known as Harrisburg.
It could also apply to the people that Pennsylvanians elect to represent them in that glistening city on the banks of the Potomac, Washington, D.C.
Doubt that? Consider this:
Of the 253 members of the General Assembly who had a chance to vote on that 2011 congressional map now tossed out by the courts, guess how many of them have since been convicted of a crime?
A robust total of 14.
This isn’t even getting into the number of staffers who worked for these lawmakers who also got convicted in a series of scandals. Nor does it account for the statewide officials (attorney general, treasurer, Supreme Court justice) also convicted of wrongdoing.
No, as the professors of logic remind us, correlation is not causation. Gerrymandering is far from the only root of Pennsylvania’s corrupt political culture.
But corruption usually begets more corruption; the violation of one sacred standard often leads to the collapse of other standards.
And make no mistake, distorting election districts to create an unfair advantage for your team is a form of corruption. It is cheating. It creates an advantage that other forms of corruption then seek to cash in on.
When incumbents know they can win without breaking a sweat, complacency flourishes. And, depending on the person, complacency can breed arrogance — and arrogance can lead to a belief that the rules apply only to other people.
Math of shame
Is it any surprise, then, that of the 18 people who waltzed to victory in the state’s U.S. House elections in 2014, four got mired in scandal?
Democrat Chaka Fattah of Philadelphia was convicted in 2016 on federal corruption charges. His fellow Philadelphia Democrat, Robert Brady, announced he would not run for re-election in 2018 under cloud of an FBI probe.
Republican Tim Murphy, who represented a western Pennsylvania district and opposes abortion rights, resigned after reports that he’d pressured a mistress to have an abortion, while Republican Patrick Meehan of Philadelphia’s western suburbs decided not to run in 2018 after a House ethics panel began investigating allegations that he sexually harassed a staffer.
Pennsylvanians discontented at the persistent pace of corruption among the people they elect would do well to consider gerrymandering as a major cause of the malady.