While change was the key to the 2008 elections, 2010 may be shaping up as a return to same old, same old. Several ethically compromised current or ex-officeholders -- including at least two convicted on corruption charges -- are planning or considering races for Congress or governor.
Former Rep. James Traficant (D-OH) is running for Congress this year despite having been expelled by the House of Representatives in 2002 after his conviction for bribery, racketeering and tax evasion. He was just released from prison last September and seeks to reclaim a seat in Congress.
Even as Rep. Nathan Deal (R-GA) is being investigated for ethics violations, he is actively campaigning to become Georgia's next governor. Deal abused his position as a member of Congress to intervene with Georgia political leaders to preserve a program that financially benefits him.
The former mayor of Providence, R.I., Vincent Cianci Jr., is exploring a campaign for either Congress or his former office. Cianci was convicted of corruption charges in 2002, and finished serving his prison sentence in 2007. During his initial tenure as mayor during the 1980s, Cianci resigned from office after pleading no-contest to assaulting a man whom he suspected of having an affair with his estranged wife.
Former Rep. Richard Pombo (R-CA) is running for a different House seat than the one he lost in the 2006 election. Although never convicted of corruption, Rep. Pombo's behavior was nonetheless deplorable. Pombo urged the Interior Department to suspend rules opposed by the wind power industry, which just so happened to have paid Pombo's parents hundreds of thousands of dollars in royalties. He used taxpayer funds to finance a family vacation through our national parks, and he accepted more than $35,000 from disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff. These and other ethical lapses earned Pombo a place on CREW's 2006 list of the 20 most corrupt members of Congress and persuaded voters to oust him.
Do Pombo and other ethically challenged candidates think the public will welcome them back despite their shady dealings? The evidence suggests not. National exit polls following the 2006 midterm elections showed 42% of voters called corruption an extremely important issue in their choices in the voting booth, ahead of terrorism, the economy and even the Iraq war.
Clearly times have changed since the 2006 elections, and the still bleak economy and the seemingly endless wars will likely play a much greater role in voters' decisions. But those who assume that in the post-Abramoff era Americans no longer are concerned about ethics should think again. Two months ago, for the first time since Gallup began polling on the issue, a majority of Americans rated the honesty and ethics of members of Congress as either low or very low. Even car salespeople were ranked better.
This suggests neither apathy nor the passage of time is likely to make voters forget which candidates have fundamentally betrayed our trust. It will be up to us to make sure our politicians remember this as well.