Allentown Mayor Ed Pawlowski was not my favorite guy. I was never a part of his inner circle, and I was on the receiving end of his political consultant’s wrath a few times. Ed is not a sympathetic, warm and fuzzy character either. At best, he’s an acquired taste. There’s another side to it though- he really wasn’t a bad Mayor. The re-development of Downtown Allentown that he undertook has improved that city. His political sense, to bring the rising Latino and Syrian communities into the political process, will make the city better for decades to come. Good things have been happening in a city that was not going in a good direction when he got elected. Remember, his predecessor left office very unpopular, while Ed was re-elected pretty convincingly last Fall.
To be clear though, the jury believed the government’s case, that Ed Pawlowski was a liar, corrupt, and had defrauded the public of honest public services. They believed he undertook a vast conspiracy, to use his office’s power to raise money for runs for higher offices, while in the process not doing what is right for the people. Essentially, they believed he was a lying crook. In truth, the recordings were devastating. The government’s cross-examination of Pawlowski, in which they forced him to admit he was a liar, sealed his fate and sent him to jail, probably for the next decade. It’s hard to argue with the juries findings, given the evidence that was put forward. Once Ed admitted he lied about some things, why would they believe he wasn’t guilty of everything?
So one has to ask how this happens? I have no evidence that Pawlowski, an ex-preacher, is somehow particularly evil. While it may not be okay for a Mayor to take football tickets or dinners from vendors, let’s not pretend this guy was Congressman Bill Jefferson (D-LA), with $50,000 in his freezer. It appears that this guy became blind with ambition, and his need for political benefactors drove him to do things that he probably didn’t expect to do when he ran in 2005. It also appears that his political consultant became blind with greed, and the ability to make money from politicians, unions, developers, and anyone else who had a checkbook. The whole thing is kind of sad, and frankly very cautionary. Here was a city that was making some positive progress, and now we see that it was all built on lies. That’s a damn shame.
I think the honest truth here is that campaigns cost too damn much money. This is why Pennsylvania legislators were using state staff to run campaigns in exchange for bonuses a decade ago, and it’s why we’re watching Allentown’s positive story unravel now. It costs too much money to run 1,000 points of television, or to send a mail piece to a state house district, or to pay for a couple of field organizers. Obviously this doesn’t lead most elected officials to corruption- out of the tens of thousands of candidates for office every year, only a small percentage are even ever investigated, let alone charged, let alone convicted. We should treat this as a particularly appalling case. While fundraising, one should never even discuss promises of public policy outcomes, and everyone in politics knows that, while only a few violate it. Even so, it’s hard to finance a campaign at any level, at least if you want to win.
Here’s the truth about campaigns- you can’t make them free. Mail has to cost postage. Television commercials cost money to produce, let alone buy air-time to show. Campaign staff have to be paid in order to be able to work for a candidate. Printers have to be paid for printing literature. Campaign offices have to cost rent. You can’t force people to provide these goods and services for free.
There’s a second truth too- you can’t stop interested people from donating to campaigns. Who are most interested? Those involved in the governing process. You cannot limit the ability of anyone in our society to speak out on political matters- this is what the First Amendment expressly protects. When you limit the ability of people to donate directly to candidates, they end up creating their own dark money groups and independent expenditures- which ends up leading to confused voters, shady messaging, and elections bought by the billionaires and oligarchs.
None of this should be accepted as normal or okay. No matter how hard it is to finance your political ambitions, you cannot sell public policy for campaign donations. You cannot rig bids to help campaign donors. You should not be sweeping your office for wires and phone taps. You cannot lie to the FBI when they launch an investigation into your work. The jury found Mayor Pawlowski guilty of that.
No one won in the case of Ed Pawlowski. He will go to jail, which is obviously terrible for his family and friends. The city was making progress, and becoming a better place to live, which now falls under question. The taxpayers were denied honest services by the entire conspiracy. The whole situation is sad. We shouldn’t treat it as normal.