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When Politicians Refuse To Leave The Stage

Many voices in New York politics are suggesting that Gov. David Paterson should resign before his term ends.
Spencer Platt
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Many voices in New York politics are suggesting that Gov. David Paterson should resign before his term ends.

New York Gov. David Paterson is not the first politician who proved reluctant to leave office in the wake of a scandal. Lots of governors and mayors stick around long after sex or corruption charges cost them their ability to be productive.

That can spell trouble for their constituents. Cities and states suffer embarrassment — and sometimes, real harm — when their top leaders are tarnished.

So why do some politicians refuse to go when it's clear that their time is up? "Ego is the reason," says Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. "The same thing that makes you do it in the first place makes you think you can get away with it."

It's a question of power, perks, paychecks, self-delusion, hubris and arrogance.

Power, Perks, Paychecks

Doug Muzzio, a political scientist at Baruch College, suggests that politicians have a lot of reasons for staying in office — and possibly in denial — after it's clear to everyone else that they're in deep trouble.

"It's a question of power, perks, paychecks, self-delusion, hubris and arrogance," Muzzio says.

Few people in any line of work are eager to leave a job without a sense of future prospects. But politicians may be especially reluctant to quit, due to a sense that they're doing indispensable work to the applause of the public, or at least their staff.

"Once you've gotten elected, once you've earned the favor of the majority, you begin to think of yourself in a different way — as somehow invulnerable, above criticism and attack," says Matthew Crenson, a Johns Hopkins University political scientist.

South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford began a Cabinet meeting at the State House on June 26 by apologizing for his scandal.
Davis Turner
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South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford began a Cabinet meeting at the State House on June 26 by apologizing for his scandal.

When to Ignore Your Governor

When a public official becomes damaged goods, there's no upside for other politicians to do him any favors — or even be caught dealing with him. If your approval ratings fall into the 20s, that's a signal to everyone else to move in the opposite direction.

Eight months after a sex scandal turned him into an international laughingstock, South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford is still in power — but only nominally. The state Legislature routinely ignores him.

"Everybody has more or less decided they're going to tread water until he's gone," says James Guth, a political scientist at Furman University in Greenville, S.C. "Most of the legislative action is going on pretty much with the governor way off on one side."

Blues In Albany

In this regard, New York may be worse off than South Carolina. Paterson ended his candidacy for re-election on Friday amid allegations that he used his office to interfere with a criminal investigation.

Paterson acceded to the governorship after Eliot Spitzer's 2008 resignation in a prostitution scandal.

Today, Paterson is not the only politician in Albany with problems. The state Senate shut down for a month last summer due to partisan deadlock. The chamber last month expelled a member due to a domestic abuse arrest, once again leaving itself without a clear working majority.

"It's not just one branch of government that's not working and has been effectively delegitimized," Muzzio says. "In a sense, it's the worst of all possible worlds."

Civic Migraines

In recent years, mayors in Detroit, Baltimore and Spokane, Wash., each refused to leave office for months, despite allegations that ultimately led to a conviction or popular recall. Their attempts to tough things out caused civic migraines, of varying degrees of intensity.

Remaining in office after their credibility was already in tatters impinged on their cities' ability to cut deals with businesses, and had an impact on their effectiveness as lobbyists in state capitals and Washington.

As a practical matter, huge legal or media difficulties are a day-to-day distraction. Unlike other mayoral tasks, it's hard to delegate meetings with personal attorneys.

"There's no question it's damaging for the jurisdiction," says Fred Carstensen, director of the Connecticut Center for Economic Analysis.

Referring to the mayor of Hartford, who twice last year surrendered himself to state police on corruption charges, Carstensen says, "How effective can an Eddie Perez be when there's an indictment over his head? You can't walk into the room without that baggage."

Not Proven Guilty

Perez has denied wrongdoing and vows to remain in office. No crimes have been proven, after all. And sometimes the public will stick with a politician who is under a legal cloud, particularly if he or she has been an effective leader.

Remember the classic bumper sticker from the Louisiana governor's race of 1991, when notoriously corrupt former Gov. Edwin Edwards defeated ex-Klansman David Duke? "Vote for the crook. It's important."

But most people, despite deep and abiding cynicism about politicians, don't want their leaders to be crooks. That's why politicians have to do more to maintain civic trust than to keep themselves out of jail.

Should Paterson Go?

Paterson said Monday that he's become the "victim" of "hysteria." But there are plenty of voices in New York politics now suggesting that he should resign before his term ends at the end of this year.

One of the few people publicly arguing that Paterson should serve out his term is Rod Blagojevich, the ex-governor of Illinois, who only left office last year after being impeached.

"If he didn't do anything wrong, then you shouldn't quit," Blagojevich said in a Fox Business Network interview Friday. "You should fight."

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