In 1905, George Washington Plunkitt, a New York City political boss and one of the leading powers in the fabled Tammany Hall, published a book, A Series of Very Plain Talks on Very Practical Politics, with newspaper columnist William Riordon of the New York Evening Post. Tammany Hall was a local Democratic Party club that controlled the New York City municipal government from the 1850s to the 1930s. In the brief book (under 100 pages long), Plunkitt defended what he called "honest graft" and espoused a political philosophy based on the idea "I seen my opportunities and I took'em."
Plunkett made millions using political influence and inside information to enrich himself as a contractor and by buying and selling real estate. According to Plunkett, since nobody was hurt by his maneuvers, his pigging out at the public trough was honest.
A century later politics in the United States and New York City has changed. Instead of going into politics to become rich, we have a new model for honest graft, the wealthy using their riches to buy up public office and ensure the country they want to see -- to hell with the rest of us.
The rich are everywhere. In 2009, 44% of the U.S. Senators were millionaires and the average Senator was worth $6.64 million. This year in Florida, Palm Beach billionaire Jeff Greene, who made $800 million by betting the housing bubble would burst, is running for the Democratic Party's nomination for the U.S. Senate. Mega-millionaire Rick Scott who made a fortune running a hospital chain that admitted cheating Medicare out of $1.7 billion is running in the Republican primary for governor. In California, former eBay chief executive Meg Whitman and former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina are running for statewide office. Not only are they pouring their personal wealth into their campaigns, but Whitman suspiciously "invested" a million dollars in a start-up "indie" film company belonging to a leading Republican Party political operative. In Connecticut, it seems every candidate for anything is a multi-millionaire. Ordinary millionaires can still vote, they just don't count for very much.
But the gold standard for rich people in politics remains New York City Mayor Michael "Moneybags" Bloomberg (net-worth $17 billion), who is busy reviving the politics of Tammany Hall; he sees his opportunities and he buys what he wants.
According to a New York Times article, Bloomberg is New York City's richest man and biggest philanthropist. Since he was first elected Mayor in 2001, he has purchased electoral and political support by "donating" $200 million to nonprofit groups across the five boroughs, In 2008, he called in his markers and demanded that the groups he was funding support his push to overturn the city's term limits law.
Bloomberg has also steered money through the Carnegie Corporation to support "research" and "advocacy" in favor of his other campaigns, especially his push for charter schools and against teacher seniority rights. He has given millions to the Massachusetts 2020 Foundation and to Uncommon Schools to create alternative models as a ploy to privatize public education, the National Council on Teacher Quality, Washington, DC to develop new evaluation techniques to undermine teacher tenure, The New Teacher Project to de-professionalize teaching and turn it into a low-paid temporary job, and Achieve and Urban Assembly schools to promote test prep to jack up student scores on standardized tests.
Bloomberg is also not above doing favors for wealthy friends. The children and relatives of Lloyd Blankfein, Goldman Sachs CEO, Peter Peterson, a founder of the Blackstone Group, former Deputy Mayor Daniel Doctoroff and Laurence Tisch, CBS chief executive, all jumped to the front of the line and received highly coveted internships at New York City Hall. So did Luke Russert, son of Tim Russert of NBC's "Meet the Press," Amy Secunda, daughter of a co-founder of Bloomberg's info-tech company, the daughter of the President of the city's Health and Hospitals Corporation, and Bloomberg's own daughter Emma.
While all this may have legally been honest graft, Bloomberg is now under scrutiny in an investigation into more traditional forms of graft such as theft and bribery. John Haggerty, Jr., a Republican Party consultant and a friend of Mayor Moneybags has been indicted for stealing over a million dollars from the 2009 Bloomberg reelection campaign. Haggerty was "supposed" to provide election day services to the Bloomberg campaign through the New York State Independence Party, but the Manhattan district attorney charges he pocketed the money instead and used it to buy a house. Haggerty faces a possible 25 years in prison.
I love to see Moneybags squirm and I am hoping for a big messy trial where Bloomberg is forced to testify, but I bet Haggerty cops a plea for a much reduced sentence, time served or probation and somehow ends up on the Bloomberg or Republican party payroll again. At a press conference, an annoyed Moneybags was grilled by reporters about the case and would only reply he had been asked by the District Attorney not to comment. Of course something like that never stopped him from pontificating before.