Thursday, November 5, 2009

New Jersey and Corruption: Perfect Together?

When I lived in New Jersey back in the 90's the state tourism pitch was "New Jersey & You: Perfect Together". Given the perception that New Jersey is inherently politically corrupt, seems as good a title as any for this post.

In our polling from October 15-20, we asked a series of questions about corruption, including perceptions of how corrupt politics is (very!), and how corrupt business is (lots of cynicism there too.) We also asked about penalties for corruption and who should take a leadership role in cleaning things up.

The full press release with tables and details will be posted on the Rutgers-Eagleton Poll website ( but here are a few highlights from the press release.


Leadership by citizens groups needed to raise ethical standards

NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. – As New Jersey voters elected a corruption-busting former US Attorney to the Governor’s office, a Rutgers-Eagleton Poll of state residents finds overwhelming belief that New Jersey politics is corrupt, with more than half believing the state is more corrupt than other states. At the same time they are divided about the harshness of punishment to be meted out to those accused of corruption, believing accused officials should not summarily have their pay and benefits cut off, but that they should be forced to leave office upon being accused.

Perceptions of Corruption in New Jersey

Almost two-thirds of respondents (65 percent) say that there is “a lot” of political corruption in New Jersey, while 26 percent say there is “some” and only 5 percent say there is “little” political corruption. In comparison, when asked about corruption in New Jersey business, 80 percent are evenly split between “a lot” and “some” categories, and 10 percent said there is only a little corruption.

When asked to compare states, 54 percent of respondents say that New Jersey is more corrupt than other states, while 40 percent believe corruption in New Jersey is about the same as elsewhere. Only 3 percent believe New Jersey is less corrupt.

The results show a dramatic surge over the past decade in the belief that New Jersey is more corrupt. Redlawsk noted that in a 1974 poll, only 16 percent thought New Jersey was more corrupt than other states, and the percentage dropped to 11 percent in 2002. “With recent high-profile corruption arrests and convictions, New Jerseyans have become much more negative about how corrupt their state really is,” he said.

Penalties for Officials Accused of Corruption

After the July 2009 arrests of legislators and local officials on corruption charges, Assembly Speaker Joseph Roberts Jr. announced the immediate cutoff of pay and benefits to three legislators who had been accused. By 58 percent to 36 percent, poll respondents say that such penalties should be applied only after conviction. But when asked if officials who have only been accused of corruption should be forced to leave office, 50 percent say yes; 42 percent say such officials should be allowed to stay in office until found guilty.

New Jersey Residents Prefer Honest Officials, even if Ineffective

The poll tested tolerance for corruption by asking respondents to make a choice between a “politician who might be corrupt but could get important things done” and “an honest politician who had trouble making things happen.” Overwhelmingly, New Jerseyans chose the honest politician, 78 percent to 15 percent. When asked to “in government corrupt means are needed to achieve important goals,” 80 percent disagreed, while only 15 percent agreed.

Residents Call on Citizen’s Groups to Take the Lead

Given the perceived pervasiveness of corruption in New Jersey politics, the question becomes who should play a leadership role in raising ethical standards and addressing corruption. Repeating a question first asked by the Rutgers-Eagleton Poll in 2006, respondents were asked to identify who should take the lead on ethics in New Jersey. Citizen’s groups were preferred by 28 percent of respondents, while 22 percent thought it is up to state and federal prosecutors. The governor and the state legislature were each named by 17 percent, while only 3 percent though business leaders should take the lead on political corruption and ethical standards.


Probably not actually surprising anyone with these results, I suppose, but an interesting look into perceptions of corruption in the state.

I did a little bit of quick and dirty looking into actual corruption here the other day. Federal public corruption statistics show New jersey as having had the 12th largest number of federally convicted public officials over the past decade or so. Interestingly, the Census says we have the 10th largest public employee payroll (state and local). We also have an ungodly number of local governments, when municipalities, school districts, and various authorities and special districts are counted. I think these things are all related!

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