Rudnik > Sure, they’re Stealing, but are they “Stealing for us?”

| April 8, 2015

Corruption in Georgia is at its azimuth.  Voters are quite aware, and have been for some time.


Nick Rudnik, Valdosta Today Opinion Contributor

In the old south, candidates for public office could be divided into one of two groups: the populists and the demagogues. Indeed, infighting between the two occurred in the confines of the Democratic primary—for this was the one-party south, and in the oft-reported adage, the Democratic primary was “tantamount to election.”

The populists appealed to a notion of progress in an attempt to ameliorate poverty in their beleaguered states. They promised state-funded hospitals, more public roads, better schools, and new programs to help the downtrodden if elected. The latter category was the demagogues. Think of the archetype made forever famous by segregationist Alabama governor George Wallace. These politicians masterfully employed the “big lie” to gain assent to the governor’s office or the legislature. They used the question of race—outright fear and misunderstanding—to coerce white southern voters to show up in frenzied droves to the polls, and then elect demagogic and divisive leaders to their state’s highest positions.

In 1931, populist Georgia agriculture commissioner, Eugene Talmadge, was accused of misusing public funds. The high-minded populist and self-proclaimed “real dirt farmer” was reproached for pilfering public coffers for his own benefit—undoubtedly hypocritical for a leader branded as a “true man of the people.” What was truly remarkable was his response. It was only upon public rebuke that Talmadge perpetuated a lie of his own, telling his supporters, “Sure I stole, but I stole for you.” Talmadge would go on to be elected to four terms (i.e., two year terms) as Georgia’s governor, although dying before being sworn in for his final term.

Fast forward eight decades and Georgia’s government has changed a great deal, and yet, it has stayed much the same. How did State Integrity Investigation, a project of the Center for Public Integrity, rank Georgia’s government? Dead last. Fiftieth in the nation in state ethics laws, campaign finance regulations, transparency, and a range of other criteria.

That’s right. The Peach State has been consistently rated as the most corrupt, most ineffectual, and least ethical state government in the United States.

Political observers often use euphemisms like “Chicago,” “New Jersey,” or even “Louisiana” as colorful adjectives to describe contexts where corruption reigns supreme—but perhaps “Atlanta-style politics” is both a more timely and appropriate adage.

Between 2007 and 2008, according to State Integrity Investigation, “650 government employees accepted gifts from vendors doing business with the state.” Moreover, state budget cuts have gutted the investigatory abilities of the Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission, the state watchdog group tasked with policing government functionaries.

What’s more, nearly one in five sitting legislators have failed to pay fines associated with not filing campaign disclosure documents within the time constraints prescribed by law. And, perhaps most troubling, there lacks a clear institutional mechanism to gain access to state documents. Transparency is handled on an ad hoc basis among state agencies, and greatly varies from agency to agency.

Despite news and public advocacy groups long informing Georgians of the state’s ethical woes, there are still massive exceptions and loopholes in state ethics laws that, effectively, “rig the system.” We must inevitably ask: is this really the best we can expect from legislators and bureaucrats in Atlanta? Former Louisiana Congressman Bobby Tauzin famously said of his state’s historically-corrupt politics, that at any given time, “Half of Louisiana is under water and the other half is under indictment.” In Georgia, at least we can say half of our state is not under water.

It’s doubtful that we’ll see far-reaching state ethics reform in the foreseeable future. That’s almost certain. In the halls of the state capitol and among state agencies, we know what reigns above all is a culture of corruption, theft, grift. So, what we should ask our legislators and agency heads in Atlanta is not if they’re stealing. For we all know the answer. And quite frankly, nobody seems to care.

Rather, in this age of institutionalized corruption, with a pervasive and widespread culture of impropriety in the state capital, the only question remaining we should ask is, are officials in Atlanta still “stealing for us?” For if they’re not, perhaps only then in our state is corruption a real issue for ordinary people when they go to the polls on Election Day.

I should conclude by taking the high ground, and say that Georgians expect more from our state government—but that would be disingenuous. History has shown us this is simply not the case.

rudnik-thumbnailNicholas A. Rudnik is currently pursuing a degree in political science with a concentration in American politics at Valdosta State University.  Previously, he’s served as a congressional page in the U.S. House of Representatives during the 111th Congress and in the Office of U.S. Congressman Sanford Bishop.  Further, Nick has served on staff at an institutional interest group, the Association of American Law Schools, in Washington and has worked in the private sector.  He has presented his research, focused primarily on congressional parties and elections, at regional academic conferences and hopes to pursue a graduate degree in political science.  Nick is currently completing two manuscripts relating to southern congressional elections and judicial decision-making in the area of campaign finance; he can be contacted via e-mail at  Follow Nick on Twitter: @NickRudnik.

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1 Comment on "Rudnik > Sure, they’re Stealing, but are they “Stealing for us?”"

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  1. Jan says:

    Democraps and Rethuglicans in Atlanta no doubt…