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Resign first, run later

Sunday, January 24th, 2010



The Bonusgate probe in Harrisburg has spurred allegations about politically motivated prosecutions. In today’s audio column, Chris Satullo shares some thoughts about how to avoid such controversy.

Listen:

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Should an elected official be forced to resign his current post before seeking election to another?

Five states have such “resign to run” laws. Pennsylvania Attorney General Tom Corbett’s run for governor has generated some chatter about making the Keystone State the sixth.

Like term limits, “resign to run” is one of those reforms that sound good in theory, but work less well in practice. That said, the spectacle of Corbett’s Bonusgate probe has me wondering whether we ought to apply the rule to his office at least.

Here’s what’s troubling about people who run without resigning:

They tend to neglect their current job while they pursue, with boiling ego and ambition, a new job. They t leverage the power and perks of their current position to boost their chances for the next one. Lots of over-sized checks handed out, with cameras flashing. Lots of noisy hearings on issues that push populist buttons.

But here’s what’s problematic about the proposed cure:

First, resign to run thins the pool of experienced challengers, enhancing the built-in advantages incumbents already enjoy. Second, it makes it even more likely that only people of independent wealth could afford to run. Finally, office holders tend to evade these laws through unofficial, wink-wink campaigns.

Still, all that said, I think the office of state attorney general is unique

Its power goes beyond grooving a check or casting a vote. The office can investigate, prosecute and, by implication, imprison. Everyone must trust that such awesome powers are being used fairly, without political bent.

Corbett’s Bonusgate probe has reaped bold headlines. He’s indicted a passel of Harrisburg lawmakers and aides. Their alleged offense? Electioneering on the public dime. Yes, the irony light is flashing rather brightly.

To be clear, I’m delighted an attorney general has shown energy in rooting out official corruption. Just imagine how much better Philadelphia might be if its district attorney for the last two decades has shown an iota of similar energy.

But as Corbett has indicted Democrat after Democrat, it’s been harder and harder to avoid the appearance of a political agenda. He recently indicted powerful Philadelphia Republican John Perzel, though I suspect the accent there was on the Philadelphia, not the Republican.

The Bonusgate probe is important, overdue oversight of the Harrisburg swamp. But Corbett’s political ambitions clearly compromise its credibility.

In Harrisburg, a bill exists that would apply resign to run solely to the state attorney general. But it has, frankly, a snowball’s chance of passage. Perhaps a Gov. Corbett would push for one.


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