You know things are bad in Sacramento when California’s lawmakers are required to take ethics training.
State Senate members were called into a closed-door session by Senate Democratic leader Darrell Steinberg this week to attend a mandatory ethics training session, a shocking admission that something stinks in the Capitol building of the Golden State.
The training session was held in the aftermath of three Democratic senators facing criminal charges, a major embarrassment for a party that has fought long and hard to reach its goal of controlling the state Legislature.
Not that Republicans should take much solace in the accusations. Allegations of corruption affect both parties equally.
After all, who can blame the poor voter who looks at the influence of special interests in the halls of government and reacts by saying: “My vote doesn’t count anymore. My so-called representatives respond to the moneyed interests and not to me.”
The average voter is right, because the amount of fund-raising required to run for office has become a dominating part of any candidate’s campaign strategy.
Honest or corrupt, a candidate today faces a daily challenge to raise money — if not for herself, for others in her party’s leadership. Where is your Assembly member or state senator this evening? Chances are he’s at a fund-raiser, smiling and making small talk over wine and cheese with this trade group or that association.
As a result, there’s now considerable push-back about getting the money out of politics, about putting limits on donations or banning methods of fund-raising altogether. Just this week during a debate among candidates for state Secretary of State, four candidates vowed to take action against the corrupting influence of money, each of them proposing a different level of regulation.
Alas, we’re not convinced that either strict legislation or ethics training behind closed doors will solve the problem. Integrity is a personal issue, and voters should ask that a candidate for office — any candidate — should make a case during a campaign that he or she will respond to voters and not merely the special interests.
Most office-holders are honest. But like the rest of us, politicians are judged by the worst of what they do, and that means that they ought to answer some hard questions about who funds them and why.
Accepting a political donation in and of itself is not corrupt — whether it’s from an environmental group or a private industry. But it’s up to the office-holder to acknowledge the donation, report it publicly and ensure that the voter still has a voice.
In our current political climate, it’s impossible to expect the public to give blind trust to those holding office. Ethics training actually might be a good start. But public officials — especially those in far-off Sacramento — have a lot of work to do to regain the public trust.
It will take time and a lot of effort. The ball is in their court.