The mayor of Mount Vernon, NY, a city of around 70,000 citizens just north of New York City, has been charged with several felonies, essentially for stealing money from his own campaign committee. Mayor Richard Thomas also spent tens of thousands of dollars raised for his inauguration on personal expenses, but that is apparently not illegal.
New York State law clearly prohibits using money raised for a political campaign for personal use. Based on news reports, it seems pretty clear that Mr. Thomas violated that prohibition. His supporters point out that:
- The offenses did not affect his work as mayor.
- He had no source of income while he was running his campaign full-time.
I have little sympathy for the first point. We have no way of knowing that, his constituents have no way of knowing that, and frankly neither does he. If the mayor had to make some decision involving a contributor, the mayor himself could not possibly know that he would treat the person the same way, listen just as much, understand just as much, and make the same decision had the person not been a contributor. And even if he would, his constituents, and the person on the other side of that decision could never be sure and could not have confidence in the integrity of the process. The appearance of corruption is just as bad (maybe even worse) than actual corruption.
While I still do not agree with his actions, the second point is valid. Mayor Thomas’s malfeasance brings into question a really important consideration in how political candidates can, or cannot, afford to get involved in our democratic processes. In this mayor’s case, the financial strain of forgoing paid employment while campaigning was too great a burden. Although stealing from one’s own campaign committee is not the answer, I do believe it highlights a greater issue at hand, and that is this country’s impending reliance on independently wealthy politicians rather than individuals of modest means being able to enter the political arena.
I do not want, and our country does not need, only independently wealthy people running for office. (Take it from me, being wealthy is a lot better than the alternative, but it should not give someone greater access to political office.) A lot of people who might make great elected officials cannot afford (financially) to take months off from their work. (How would you feel about quitting your job and going without pay for six months?) Perhaps Mayor Thomas should have made himself, as a candidate, a paid staff member of his own campaign. In 2002, the Federal Election Commission ruled that candidates for president or Congress could pay themselves a salary from their campaigns. If state laws on this vary for local offices, it should be the main source of our discontent.
In order for Mayor Thomas’s crimes to be the last of their kind, we should consider allowing candidates for any elected position to become paid members of their staff. Campaigning is not so lucrative that uninterested parties would enter races simply for a financial gain, and it would also allow candidates to maintain their integrity. The other option is relinquishing our elected offices to the Trumps, Waltons, and Gates, or ceeding incumbents the advantage of campaigning while receiving their current office’s salary.