The controversy over Dan Wolf – the state senator from Cape Cod whose planned run for governor has been upended by the ethics commission — is less about the misapplication of the law and more, as Charles Dickens once put it, because “the law is an ass.” Existing ethics rules help create a political class unrepresentative of the public, they undermine the idea of the citizen-legislator, and they rob our politics of needed real-world insights. Yes, Wolf deserves to run — not as a special exception legislators might make for a colleague, but under a new set of rules that opens up elected office to all comers.
Earlier this month, the State Ethics Commission determined that Wolf, founder of Cape Air, should divest himself of the airline if he wanted to run for governor. In fact, it concluded, Wolf shouldn’t even be a senator. The reason? Cape Air flies in and out of state-owned Logan Airport, administered by the Massachusetts Port Authority. The law says politicians can’t do business with state agencies. Ergo, Wolf is violating the law.
There’s a slippery slope to this way of thinking. Cape Air pays a fee for the use of a gate, the same as any other competing airline. If this puts Wolf on the wrong side of the law, then barred as well are a host of others: Truckers traveling along the state-owned Massachusetts Turnpike, restaurateurs required to have permits to open their doors, health care professionals receiving payments from Medicare or Medicaid. Government, after all, is intertwined in almost everything. Is everyone who somehow does business with it so conflicted they must be barred from public office? So it would seem. The only way out for aspiring pols would be to quit their jobs.
Some would argue they should quit. Politics is a serious obligation, after all. If you want to hold office you should be willing to make a sacrifice. Few can afford to do so, of course, meaning that the logical end point of this argument is to abandon the cherished notion of the citizen-legislator in favor of the professional politician. Ideally, politics should be something easily engaged in by the ordinary citizen. Instead, the rules burdening candidates make it too difficult for most. The field of possible candidates becomes remarkably un-diverse.
I don’t mean that in the sense of race, ethnicity, or gender (although politicians lack diversity in those respects, too) but rather in terms of wealth and occupation. Here in Massachusetts, legislators are paid about $61,000 annually — a decent but hardly princely sum. That salary, for example, would support a mortgage for a home costing $245,000. But with the median home price in metro Boston at $330,000, it’s hard to live decently — and in addition put the kids through college. The money has to come from somewhere else, and it does. With 58 percent of Bay State legislators saying their only job is being a legislator, it’s a reasonable bet that most of them have a well-paid spouse, a trust fund, or some other source of wealth. For those who don’t, a second income is needed — the most common of which (23 percent) is law. Lawyers, interestingly enough, seem largely exempt from the ethics rules that tripped up Wolf (clever lawyers: they wrote the laws, after all).
I’ve got nothing against lawyers or the rich (I’m one of the former and wish I were one of the latter), but having a political class dominated by these two groups is a problem. We should welcome the experiences of someone like a Dan Wolf, who’s seen firsthand the working of quasi-independent state agencies such as Massport. The same goes for those in any manner of professions.
The solution isn’t to abandon ethics rules, but rather to refocus them on three broad goals: disclosure, recusal, and jail. Don’t prohibit people with possible conflicts from holding office. Rather, enforce transparency. Make them disclose everything. If there is an issue that poses a conflict, they should note it and bow out. And if they don’t follow the first two sets of rules, then in comes the third: prosecution and tough penalties.
Voters deserve a broad and diverse field of candidates. Change the rules and give everyone a chance to make their case.
Tom Keane can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org