The laboratories of democracy are blowing up.
A rash of relatively convoluted, thoroughly unsexy political scandals involving governors is moving through the country. So many of them involve Republican presidential hopefuls that conspiracy theorists could argue they must be manufactured, or at least overhyped, by wily Democratic strategists. At least one Democratic governor has also been implicated, though.
Most of the scandals (or, to be fair, sometimes pseudo-scandals) are pretty hard to follow unless you’re paying really close attention. Which most Americans are not. So here’s an overview:
• Most recently Rick Perry, Texas governor and presumed 2016 Republican presidential candidate, was indicted for abuse of power and coercion.
The background: A district attorney in Texas pleaded guilty to drunk driving and was jailed. She also happens to run the state’s Public Integrity Unit, which investigates ethics violations by elected officials. Perry threatened to veto funding for the unit if the district attorney didn’t resign. She refused, so Perry carried out his threat.
Pressuring a convicted lawbreaker to leave office probably sounds legitimate. Problem is, that Public Integrity Unit was investigating a cancer research institute that was one of Perry’s pet projects. (One of its former high-ranking officials now faces a felony corruption charge.) If the district attorney had stepped down before she was up for re-election, Perry would have picked her replacement, who could then presumably have quashed the investigation. Whether his actions rose to the level of criminality is a matter of debate even among his critics.
• Likely Republican presidential hopeful and scandal-ensconced governor No. 2 is Chris Christie. By now you might know about the “time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee” incident, which has cost New Jersey taxpayers $6.52 million this year in bills from Christie’s attorneys alone. Other embarrassments seem to be burbling up, too, including Christie’s own Solyndra-style debacle: the closure of Atlantic City’s glittering Revel Casino Hotel, which opened just over two years ago, thanks in part to $260 million in tax breaks offered by the Christie administration. There’s also the matter of another possible bridge scandal, this one involving securities law violations because of the source of the funding to repair the Pulaski Skyway.
• On to Scott Walker, Wisconsin governor and possible presidential contender, who has been implicated in an allegedly illegal coordination scheme between his campaign and third-party conservative groups. A special prosecutor recently released a statement saying he has not yet drawn any conclusions from the available evidence about whether to file charges against Walker.
• Robert McDonnell, the former governor of Virginia and one-time rising star of the Republican Party, is on trial over gifts and cash he and his wife allegedly received while in office. Florida’s Rick Scott, a tea party darling once considered a possible future presidential contender, faces accusations involving personal financial interests in a rail project and a natural gas pipeline.
• As for the lone Democrat among the bunch, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo allegedly hobbled an anti-corruption commission he created, steering the commission away from investigating his allies and a media-buying company that had worked on his campaign. He ultimately disbanded the commission altogether.
How could all of this been going on without anybody noticing?
I have one theory. Facing severe challenges to their business models, lots of mid-size newspapers have decided to go “hyperlocal,” thinning out their coverage of state-level issues and officials in the process. A recent Pew report, for example, found that the number of full-time statehouse reporters fell by 35 percent between 2003 and 2014. So perhaps governors got accustomed to the luxury of operating with little scrutiny from the Fourth Estate. Some of these imbroglios were first uncovered or pursued not by journalists, by the way, but by government investigators or an outside watchdog group.
Simultaneously, Americans are increasingly turning to comedy and entertainment sources for their news. Unfortunately, most of these newsworthy gubernatorial disgraces and boondoggles involve complex legal issues. Without lurid sexts or colorful femme fatales, they don’t especially lend themselves to late-night comedy material, or even a particularly pithy portmanteau (with the exception, of course, of Christie’s “Bridgegate”). There are a couple of stellar comedians, such as HBO’s John Oliver, who have actively tried to comedify serious but technical topics, but they are unusual.
The takeaway for politicians: If you’re going to engage in dubiously ethical endeavors, make sure they’re shrouded in complicated, confusing statutes like securities law. Good old-fashioned sex scandals may sound like more fun, but they’re intelligible enough to hold the attention of comedians, and voters, for longer than you might like.
Catherine Rampell’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter, @crampell.