Blagojevich and the Politics of Surviving a Scandal

Here's my theory of political scandals: How long a politician survives in office  -- or even whether or not he or she survives at ...
by | January 12, 2009

Mecham Here's my theory of political scandals: How long a politician survives in office  -- or even whether or not he or she survives at all -- has as much to do with the popularity of the politician going into the scandal as it does with the seriousness of the misdeeds themselves.

That's what came to mind when Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich was impeached on Friday. What Blagojevich is alleged to have done is quite bad. But the swiftness of the Illinois House of Representatives' action against him also reflects Blagojevich's unpopularity even before his December arrest.

Blagojevich, who has been feuding with state legislators for years, last summer was the least popular governor in America, according to one poll. My guess is that if Blagojevich were a long-beloved executive, the Illinois legislature would be acting more deliberately. For example, the House's decision to impeach Blagojevich without actually hearing the FBI-recorded tapes would have been far more politically perilious if the governor still enjoyed a reservoir of goodwill.

Blagojevich's story is somewhat similar to that of the only other governor (to my knowledge) to have been impeached in the past 80 years. That would be Arizona's Evan Mecham, who was impeached and convicted in 1988.

Mecham's election as governor in 1986, like Blagojevich's in 2002, was largely a fluke. Mecham, a Republican, was running for governor for the fifth time when he won with 40% of the vote, benefiting from an independent candidate who siphoned votes from the Democratic nominee.

As a result, Mecham didn't have much of a base of support when he took office. He made matters worse  by promptly embarrassing his state in a variety of ways, as the Washington Post noted in his obituary:

Shortly after taking office in 1987, Mr. Mecham rescinded the state holiday honoring the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., which enraged state workers, prompted public protests and caused organizers of national conventions to steer clear of the state. Mr. Mecham, who said the holiday was implemented illegally and required a public vote, poured fuel on the controversy by opining that King "didn't deserve" the holiday.

Further, he said there was nothing wrong with calling black children "pickaninnies," a statement that prompted an Arizona bumper sticker that said, "Pickaninny: What we did for Governor."

In this context, Mecham, when accused of lawbreaking, didn't have the political muscle to survive. In court, he was later acquitted of the charges against him.

This idea doesn't just apply to politicians who are being impeached. Louisiana Sen. David Vitter and New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer both apologized after reports surfaced  that they had solicited prostitutes. Spitzer  announced his resignation within two days. Vitter is still in office and, in fact, is a favorite for reelection in 2010. There are some differences between the two cases, but, to my mind, few are more important than that Vitter was popular in Louisiana when his scandal broke and Spitzer wasn't popular in New York when he got into trouble.

With all of this in mind, I'm watching another scandal. Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon was indicted on Friday for perjury and theft. From the Baltimore Sun:

She is a popular executive and has attracted a cadre of smart, young officials in key agency positions. Her time in office has been marked by a sharp drop in the city's homicide rate, which resulted in the fewest killings in two decades last year.

She is in the midst of making significant reforms to the city's trash-collection efforts and implemented a popular single-stream recycling system.

Will that help Dixon now? Perhaps it will, at least for a little while. But there are limits to my theory. Prosecutors don't tend to care whether a politician is popular or not.

Josh Goodman
Josh Goodman  |  Former Staff Writer
mailbox@governing.com  | 

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