All Political Corruption is Local

Tammany Hall's William "Boss" Tweed, as portrayed by 19th century political cartoonist Thomas NastMatt Yglesias is befuddled that Michael Bloomberg is ineligible for re-election as NYC mayor:

It really does seem a bit odd that a mayor with a 67 percent approval rating should be forced from office because of a term limits law. I suppose I understand the theory that presidential-level term limits serve as a check on tyranny, but there doesn’t seem to me to be a good reason to worry about that at the local level of government.

One could point to the Daley Machine in Chicago or William “Boss” Tweed and Tamanny Hall as obvious counterpoints.

State and local politics is by no means my expertise; I had one undergraduate course on the subject and have followed it much more peripherally than I have national and international affairs.  My sense, though, is that mayors, especially big city mayors, get re-elected almost automatically and they have far more ability to hand out spoils than do presidents.

Indeed, despite it being theoretically and logically true that local government is closer to the people and therefore more closely watched, the opposite is clearly true.  After all, virtually everyone knows the name of the president, the president’s wife, the president’s kids, the president’s pets, and the names of major candidates for president and the names of their wives.  Not so much their local mayor or city councilmen.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Beldar says:

    I know my mayor — Bill White of Houston — because I went to law school with him. I expect he’ll resign for a cabinet post in an Obama Administration, if we have that, because although he’s been a popular mayor, he’s also a yellow-dog Democrat, and he’s not yet ready to try to run in a statewide partisan election (governor or U.S. senator) as a Dem in what’s still a very reliably Republican state.

    If he has spoils to hand out, I wish he’d give me some. But I think that system may actually still be more of a northern and eastern thing.

  2. Which came first, the inattentiveness to local politics by the populace or the decline in local reporting by your daily newspaper?

    Just curious, but are you picking on young Mr. Yglesias by repeatedly highlighting his inexperience in matters of the world?

  3. Richard Gardner says:

    young Mr. Yglesias

    He isn’t young at about 28. To me young is some high school kid ranting.

    My town is in a similar discussion – city council members are limited to 10 years. There are many valid reasons not to have a permanent political class. Likewise there are not that many people willing to take up the abuse of being a public figure for many years.

    Growing up a family friend had been the mayor for 18 years (James Simpson, Hemet CA). What I learned from him is that some folks “give-a-shit,” and others don’t. And that long term politicians are always suspect.

  4. Dave Schuler says:

    Not so much their local mayor or city councilmen.

    I know the mayor and my city councilwoman, Margaret Laurino. The mayor’s siblings and Madge are my neighbors.

    I also know several of the Cook County Board members and have had lunch at a table for four with the Lt. Governor, Pat Quinn in a little eatery downtown.

    I don’t know and have never met my Congressional representative. He’s never lived in the district, was anointed, and only does the job part-time anyway. He’ll serve as long as he cares to through a combination of no term limits and the nature of the nominating system in the political parties.

    charles austin, the word you’re looking for is “callow”. MY lives in a bubble.

    I agree with Richard Gardner: some care, some don’t, the longer you’re in office the more corrupt you’ll inevitably be.