When "Not Exactly Corrupt" Isn't Good Enough

When I was a kid growing up in the Garden State, there were ads promoting New Jersey tourism on TV featuring the governor, Tom Kean. Everyone laughed about the way Kean would say, in his inexplicable accent, "New Juhsey and you: puhfect togethuh" (I've put the ad at the bottom of this post). The idea of people coming to vacation in New Jersey seemed kind of ridiculous even to those of us who were perfectly happy living there, but why it would be more persuasive coming from the inferno of charisma that was Tom Kean was even more puzzling.

It's hardly the only time a state has produced ads for itself that also look kind of like ads for the governor (for instance, here's a California tourism ad featuring then-governor Arnold Schwarzenneger). But now people are talking about a series of commercials meant to lure people back to the Jersey shore in the wake of Superstorm Sandy, which included Chris Christie and his family. This issue was controversial in New Jersey during last year's gubernatorial campaign, but since it's kind of open season on Christie, it has now returned. Which illustrates an important principle of scandal: when it rains, it pours. Once you have a genuine scandal like Bridgegate, people start poking around to see if there's anything else juicy they can find, even if it's a story that has been out there for a whle. And partisans begin to take whacks at the wounded figure to see if they can take him down.

That doesn't tell us whether any particular charge has merit or not. In this case, the question revolves around the awarding of the contract to create a PR campaign for the state. The winner was a large firm whose bid was higher than that of the firm that came in second, and the other firm's ad proposals didn't include the governor and his family. There are some other elements of the story that make it look shady, like the fact that the firm had made donations to Christie, and that the person heading the selection committee was a Christie loyalist to whom he gave a $46,000 personal loan when she worked for him in the U.S. Attorney's office, the revelation of which led to her resignation (here's a good rundown of the whole story).

So now that Christie is on the defensive, it's news that New Jersey congressman Frank Pallone requested an inspector general's report back in August to see whether the federal taxpayer money that funded the tourism campaign was misused. You get stories about a "federal probe" into the whole affair, with the whiff of criminality that comes with it.

Again, that doesn't tell us whether or not anything corrupt went on. My guess is that this case exists in that region where no laws were broken, but the way business gets done is not exactly a model of civic integrity either. Everybody knows how the game is played, and when the contract gets awarded to the politically connected firm that is smart enough to realize that putting the governor in the ads is going to make the governor's people who are making the decision happy, nobody is surprised.

Some version of this goes on in every state and in cities and counties around the country with regard to all kinds of contracts, and it's certainly better than a system where in order to win a contract you have to give somebody a briefcase full of cash (though that's not saying much). Putting the governor in the ads is relatively harmless (even if no one has said to his or her spouse, "Hey honey, what if this year we take a vacation in that state where the governor seems nice?"). And I suppose you could argue that there are a thousand ways sitting politicians exploit their offices to further their political fortunes, most of which are things you decry when it's the other party that's doing it but think are perfectly fine with it's your party, like the president spending taxpayer money to make what are basically re-election campaign appearances. But Chris Christie is finding out that if you want to play on the national stage, everything you've done is going to be scrutinized, and "That's the way it's always been done" might not be a good enough excuse.

Here, for your viewing pleasure, are one of Christie's "stronger than the storm" ads and Tom Kean's "New Jersey and you: perfect together" ad:

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