When Power Corrupts

When a law partner poked his head into my office to give me the breaking news about Patrick Cannon, Charlotte’s newly-indicted mayor, my head told me that I should feel some degree of outrage, but my heart only felt sadness.

Like all of us, I watched the news unfold to learn what seemed to be an inescapable fact, that another elected official – this time one of our own – had learned to monetize and commoditize the powers that were entrusted to him by the good people of his community.

Patrick Cannon probably broke several criminal laws, but his sin was that he violated a contract – a contract that was negotiated by our forebears who believed in the virtues of self-governance and held high hopes for the future of a nation ruled by law.  It is a contract that arose from a notion that any person, regardless of station or birth, could be chosen by citizens to enact and carry out laws for the benefit of all.

And it is a contract that was perfected to include citizens of any gender, any sexual orientation, any religious background, and yes, any race.

The terms of the contract are as simple as they are grand. We the people grant powers to ordinary citizens to make or execute laws, and in return, they agree to use that power for the benefit of us, the governed.

Our senators, congressmen, city council members, judges, and mayors hold that power in trust as fiduciaries of the common good.

I feel sad for Charlotte, and even sad for (now former) Mayor Cannon. But mostly I feel sad for the thousands of men and women elected or appointed to public office who uphold the contract day by humble day, always giving, often sacrificing, and never expecting anything in return.

We may have allowed political corruption to become an occasional and salacious spectator sport, but we’ve never allowed it to become our culture.

Over 29 years I have represented citizens, developers, property owners, cities, counties, and governmental agencies in somewhere between 150 and 200 different communities throughout our state. I have never had a citizen or developer ask whether there might be a way to purchase favorable treatment, nor have I ever experienced a planner, board member or elected official hint that a payment or
anything else of value would result in a certain outcome.

I am confident that if any of my many colleagues who practice land use, zoning, and environmental law had received such a hint, I would have heard about it.

Patrick Cannon became a headline because he is the exception, a point that gets lost in the many articles and editorials we’ve read.

Nonetheless, each Patrick Cannon adds one more log to the smoldering fire of suspicion in our nation’s mind that most of our elected officials are on the take.  And that is sad.

There is a high probability that in tomorrow morning’s newspaper we will read about somebody killed in a tragic auto accident.  What we won’t read is an article describing the tens of thousands of drivers who made it safely to work or to school or to their child’s piano lesson and home again safely.

The only thing that has raised my ire in the aftermath of this sad event has been listening to citizens and pundits take partisan political glee in watching an opposing party member take a fall for corrupt behavior. Shame on all of us who reacted this way.  And shame on others who gloat when public corruption arises, as it equally does, from Republican ranks.

The public office that is defiled belongs to all of us, not to any party or party faction.

It’s easy to repeat the worn adage that power corrupts. What we should remember is that power and self-governance also ennoble us, in large ways and small, as we go about the daily and sometimes tedious business of running our democratic institutions for the people.

Unfortunately, those are the acts and decisions that don’t create headlines.

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One Response to “When Power Corrupts”
  1. Chris says:

    Well put as always!

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