Taking the 'usual' out of state politics

Perhaps the problem is the politicians who've been in office too long

Posted: Wednesday, May 09, 2007

The issue of ethics in government seems to live in a never-ending cycle of reform and new transgressions that require more reform. Whether it's about campaign financing, lobbying or conflicts of interest, sooner or later the good intentions of most legislation will begin to bleed through the pores of new loopholes.

So why should Alaskans expect Gov. Sarah Palin's ethics proposal to be anything more than politics as usual?

Ethics reform was one of the major focuses of Palin's candidacy. She also characterized herself as an outsider among career politicians. Both themes are more often than not cheap window dressing applied by professional advertisers on the campaign payroll.

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But Palin had the credentials to appear genuine to anyone who finds party loyalty a chokehold on our government's effectiveness. Prior to announcing her intentions to run for governor as a Republican, she took on the state's GOP chairman and stood next to a Democrat in the state House to file an ethics complaint against the attorney general in a Republican administration. She also won her party's primary with the smallest campaign purse.

Much of her work so far has been to undo decisions made by former Gov. Frank Murkowski. She withdrew her predecessor's funding for controversial roads and bridges. His jet is for sale. She is delivering transparency to the process of negotiating the natural gas pipeline. The first bill she signed added a common-sense provision to the governor's power to grant pardons, a law made necessary in response to Murkowski's insensitivity to the survivor in a negligent homicide case.

These decisions by Palin have been well received by the general public, which seems to affirm the voter's recognition that Murkowski was out of touch with the people of Alaska. Is there a relationship between the ethical reforms Palin seeks and Murkowski's lack of understanding of the views of his constituency?

Murkowski spent 22 years in the U.S. Senate. By the 1998 general election he was considered untouchable and won by almost a 4-1 majority. During the latter part of his career in Washington, D.C., the Republicans generally controlled Congress while seeking to fulfill the undemocratic ambition of a permanent majority.

After reaching the Governor's Mansion, Murkowski proceeded to unravel his popularity with the utmost ease. Hubris stands as the most plausible explanation. It was well-advertised in his farewell achievements report, which supposedly presented the true "picture of the Murkowski administration often overlooked by the general news media." Hubris is an offensive weapon against humility, and Murkowski revealed a weakness of character by not reading into his biography the reason for his embarrassing showing in the primary last August.

The reversal of Murkowski's fortunes suggests that success in elections and longevity in public office might indeed undermine the strength of one's character. The dominance of a person's political party could certainly add momentum to the false perception that governing is related to popularity.

When politicians view polls as a measure of their celebrity status, it's easy for them to turn away from public service to serving for personal gain, whether it be for power, prestige or money. The first signs of arrogance appear in the lack of respect for opposing viewpoints, which sooner or later leads to the loss of the transparency essential to a healthy democracy.

Leading a state, or a nation for that matter, isn't about using power to dictate the terms we live by. We don't elect gods, we elect human beings, and we need them to be able to admit when they're wrong, as well as to reach across the political spectrum to engage a diversity of opinions. Perhaps what ails our government isn't politics as usual, but the politicians who create the "as usual" because they've been in office too long.

It's certainly way too early to write the text about Palin in tomorrow's state history books. But if she does nothing more than prove that, even in politics, ethics is a good starting point for earning trust and respect, then she'll have made a significant contribution to the ideals of democracy in Alaska.

• Rich Moniak is a Juneau resident.

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