Say What? Why California Has No Corruption

By Peter Jamison


As a member of a profession that relies on scandal in the upper echelons of representative government to justify its existence, it was with some chagrin that I noticed the recent rankings of states by level of corruption published in USA Today and the New York Times. (Such comparisons have become a popular parlor game since the feds' arrest of Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich.) In an analysis of per-capita convictions of public officials, the Times found, our very own Golden State ranks 48th.

That struck me as quite low on the list, particularly for a mega-state whose government dwarfs those in many foreign countries. (By contrast, Florida ranked 14th.) Wondering if the national press was missing something, I put out a few calls to local observers of state politics. Their response: The numbers don't lie.

"The graphic says it all," said Larry Gerston, a political-science professor at San Jose State University, referring to the Times chart. "The question is, why is there a lack of corruption?" Robert Smith, a political-science professor at San Francisco State, said one answer lies in a tradition of good government that began with the early twentieth century's Progressive movement, which counted among its leading lights former California Gov. and U.S. Sen. Hiram Johnson. "The Progressive tradition took hold here much easier than it did in the East," Smith said. This had some practical effects: Gerston noted that California as a state has comparably few "patronage" positions, or jobs given away at the whim of elected officials.

Of course, there are exceptions to the rule. After all, California was home to GOP corruption poster boy Randy "Duke" Cunningham, the San Diego congressman who in 2005 pleaded guilty to accepting more than $2 million in bribes. However, Gerston said malfeasance in California is more likely to be along the lines of that seen in the case of former San Francisco Supervisor Ed Jew, who last month pleaded guilty to a count of perjury for lying about his place of residence in 2006 election filings.

All this doesn't mean Californians can heave a sigh of relief at the wisdom of their elected officials. "I think sometimes people confuse corruption with either ineptitude or radical ideology," Gerston said. "And we have plenty of both of those."

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