Do we really want politicians who haven’t struck it rich?

Filed under: Hazlehurst |

When FDR’s slacker son, Elliott Roosevelt, was mayor of Miami Beach during the 1960s, he was asked whether the mob ran the town. His often-quoted reply: “The mob doesn’t run Miami Beach — they just own it.”
You might say the same about the U.S. Congress, as well as the present administration. They have proven to be notably inept in actually running the country, but they’ve been remarkably successful in grabbing their own piece of the American dream.
The average net worth of our 100 U.S. senators is just a shade more than $10 million. A paltry sum, it’s true, but one which compares well with the impoverished denizens of the lower house, who must struggle by with less than half as much — an average of $5 million.
At the extremes, there are a handful of centimillionaires and a dozen seriously broke politicians.
Liberal stalwart Jane Harman (D-Calif.) leads the pack with an estimated net worth of $596 million, with dedicated conservative Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) snapping at her heels at a cool $500 million. Eight others, including Sens. John Kerrey, Ted Kennedy, and Diane Feinstein cracked the $100 million mark.
The broke folks are a little more difficult to track.
Opensecrets.org, which analyzes the congressional financial disclosures that the law requires, gives a net worth range which, because of the inherent opacity of the disclosures, often makes no sense at all.
Rep. Nydia Velazquez (D-N.Y.), for example, is either comfortably well-off, or headed to the poorhouse. Her net worth, according to her disclosure, is somewhere between minus $4 million and plus $4 million — quite a range.
The poorest member of the House or Senate appears to be Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.), he of the corruption and perjury scandal as a federal judge, with a negative net worth of $7.3 million. He was elected to the House during 1992, having been acquitted in federal court of the charges; he was impeached from federal judge office by the Senate during 1988.
Now that Bob Beauprez ($55.3 million) no longer represents Colorado in Washington, our state’s delegation might be more representative of typical Americans than almost any other. Mark Udall is worth just under $2 million. Diana Degette has less than $500,000. And our own Doug Lamborn, ranking 406th in the House with a net worth of about $50,000, is someone whom any working stiff can identify with.
Whatever problems the president and vice president might have, they won’t have to collect unemployment after leaving office.
The president’s fortune is conservatively pegged at $20 million, while the vice president will have to make do with $100 million.
And unless Barack Obama makes it to the White House, the country’s new CEO will be noticeably richer than the last one.
When the Clintons exited the White House during early 2001, they had a negative net worth. They’d held low-paying government jobs (or no job at all) for the previous quarter century, and they didn’t even own a home.
But how quickly their fortunes improved!
Bill earned $52 million from speeches, while Hillary wrote her autobiography and got elected as a U.S. senator. Today, Opensecrets estimates Hillary’s stand-alone net worth at $31 million, and possibly as much as $51 million.
John McCain isn’t looking under the sofa cushions for subway fare either (as I did while living in New York City during the 1970s, but that’s another story). He’s worth between $27.8 and $45 million. And his second wife, Cindy, is, through inheritance, the majority owner and board chairwoman of Arizona’s largest beer distributor. Her net worth is believed to be considerably north of $100 million.
By contrast, Barack Obama, unlike those of his classmates at Harvard Law who went into investment banking, is as broke as a joke.
His net worth is between $456,000 and $1.1 million, making the presidential salary of $400,000 a welcome raise from the $162,500 he currently receives as a Senator.
The obvious question, then, is:
Are we well-served by having lawmakers who, regardless of party, are far richer than 99 percent of the people whom they represent? The short answer: Sure.
Lincoln was a man of modest means and Franklin D. Roosevelt came from the upper reaches of the moneyed American aristocracy. Both rank among our greatest presidents.
A few years back, chatting with Steve Schuck, our city’s pre-eminent developer, political mover/shaker and education reformer, he spoke with dismay about a certain gubernatorial candidate.
“John,” he said, “do you realize that if he’s elected, the governor’s salary will be more than he’s ever made in his life?”
To Steve, that was reason enough to oppose him. I didn’t agree, but I understood his reasoning.
In a society as open as ours, as full of opportunity, and as quick to reward hard work and intelligent entrepreneurship, would we really want a governor who hadn’t succeeded financially?
Sure, Harry Truman was a failed haberdasher, but that was a different America.
John Hazlehurst can be reached at John.Hazlehurst@csbj.com or 227-5861.