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Men Behaving Badly: The Need for Ethics Reform

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As 2008 sputters to a close, and spurred by the recent political scandal involving the auctioning off of Barack Obama's senate seat by Governor Rod Blagojevich to the highest bidder, I can not help but reflect on how this past year has produced some of the most salacious stories in politics, all of which have involved powerful male elected officials. From former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer to former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick to former Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska, 2008 will go down as the year of the disgraced public official.

One by one they fell. It all started in late March when the state of New York was rocked by news that its corruption-fighting Governor Spitzer spent several thousand dollars patronizing a high-end prostitution service. A few months later, New York Representative Vito Fossella from Staten Island was caught drunk driving in Virginia while on his way to visit a child he fathered through an extramarital affair. And just before the Democratic National Convention, young political star Kwame Kilpatrick of Detroit was benched for his adulterous affair with an aide.

This year-in-review would not be complete without mention of Senator Stevens of Alaska and Governor Blagojevich of Illinois. In October, Stevens was convicted of seven felony counts of lying on financial disclosures and attempting to hide more than $250,000 in gifts and home renovations. And Blagojevich, who was already under investigation, has been arrested and is facing charges of conspiracy and bribery.

What do we make of these men behaving badly? Are they drunk with power? At one point or another they probably believed they were above the law. They probably believed that money or influence would buy them unlimited access to women or a free pass out of a sticky situation.

This past year has shown us that power and openness to corruption often go hand-in-hand. As I look towards the installment of Barack Obama as our next President, I have to admit I am a little worried. I look at his Cabinet picks and many of them are old Washington power heads, heavily entrenched in beltway politics and culture. Although the smell of change is in the air, there might be another stench wafting just underneath -- the stink of politics as usual.

We will need strong ethics reform at both the federal and state levels with clear checks and balances to hold elected officials more accountable for their behavior. In filling the third- and fourth-level tiers of Bamelot, Obama should add two more questions to the already exhaustive application:

(1) Are you sneaky when you think no one is looking?

and

(2) Are you willing to work to restore the citizens' trust in government and its elected officials?

C. Nicole Mason, Ph.D., is a political scientist and Executive Director of the Women of Color Policy Network at the Wagner Graduate School of Public Service at New York University. She is also a Senior Research Fellow at the National Council for Research on Women.

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