Ethics rhymes with politics

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As the 2013 citywide elections approach, politics once again takes center stage in the minds of New Yorkers. Unlike previous elections, this year we are witnessing the return of some of our government’s fallen stars. Among those searching for a comeback are former New York State Governor Eliot Spitzer, seeking the office of Comptroller, and former Congressman Anthony Weiner, seeking the office of Mayor. Although Spitzer and Weiner possess different ambitions and levels of experience, they do have common ground: both have a history of personal wrongdoing. Weiner and Spitzer resigned from their respective posts after their scandals became public. However, with election season fast approaching, both candidates have decided to put the past behind them and rejoin New York City politics. The question remains though: should we consider ethics and personal conduct as important factors when voting for candidates?

The answer is most certainly yes.

In the film The Hunt for Red October, statesman Jeffrey Pelt summarizes politicians concisely and accurately: “…when I’m not kissing babies, I’m stealing their lollipops.” This perception of politicians underscores the idea that they wear two faces. The first face is that which their campaign posters display: someone honest, dependable, skilled, and charismatic. This is the face we expect them to keep while in government. Some believe we should evaluate politicians on this face alone – on their public actions and statements. However it is the second face, what someone is like behind the scenes, that we should really evaluate, and many times what they do in their personal lives helps us do that.

Many choose not to investigate this second face during an election. This is absolutely wrong. As voters, we are mandated to bring all factors into consideration when selecting our future leaders, and those factors include ethics. It is imperative that we understand a candidate’s personal and professional life before casting our vote. A prolific politician who proves successful in public office can be as unprincipled as a criminal when off the podium of power.

Some people will ask, “Why should I care? How does that affect me?” I consider a politician’s actions while out of the spotlight to be a reflection of his or her performance in office. If they cannot keep their own house in order, we can only imagine what goes on behind the scenes in the legislature. As such, I hold my elected officials to a high standard of sincerity. In essence, I trust them explicitly. If they commit a misdemeanor, be it while in office or in their personal life, it is a blatant violation of my trust in them.

Allow me to give a hypothetical situation that is familiar to most students. Let us consider the Student Union Executive Board elections. For us, this is as close to a real election as we can get. So, what do we look for in a candidate? Is it grades? Is it their reputation? Is it their physical appearance? Would you elect a candidate who routinely cheats on exams? What about a candidate who steals from other people’s lockers? Hopefully the answer is “no.” Even in school-level politics, a candidate’s validity should be defined by conduct both inside and outside student government.

As the treasurer in our student government, I can personally say that a treasurer’s personal life is among the most important factors in his or her election. The position oversees the financial mechanisms of the Student Union, and I would never expect to be elected treasurer if everyone knew me to spend money frivolously or take on huge personal debts. Similarly, I wouldn’t elect an official who stores millions in a Swiss bank account or abuses tax havens worldwide. In both cases, the activities witnessed outside the scope of leadership offer an example of what voters can expect from the official once in office.

The qualities of a candidate that Harrisites consider must be the same as those that the general public looks for in an election. If these traits are so black-and-white to students, shouldn’t they be just as clear in the real world? I certainly believe so. In politics, one’s ethical conduct must always be at the forefront of one’s political platform. The words of Peggy Noonan, Ronald Reagan’s primary speech writer, say it all: “Sincerity and competence is a strong combination. In politics, it is everything.”

Harry Petsios is the current treasurer of the Student Union.

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