As the adage goes, power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. But small-time power—and the little, just-slightly-over-the-line acts that local politicians get away with—offers a convenient training field for the big leagues of corruption. I personally witnessed this phenomenon a few years ago.
As a volunteer in a political campaign a number of years ago, I helped out in an office on a busy city street, where metered parking was the only option. Parking meters limited our time to two hours, and police patrolled the street very strictly. Every day, volunteers and staff ran the risk of finding yet another yellow parking ticket on their windshields. One day, staffing the front desk, I greeted a young woman who introduced herself as a local politician (who had recently been elected for the first time). I cautioned her to pay attention to the parking meter to avoid a ticket. Her response was, “Oh. Are you having trouble with parking tickets? Here’s my card. I can take care of that for you.”
I did not take her card. But I did take a lesson from that incident. Her offer was the kind of small favor that can make local politicians’ careers, that is assumed to be part of the job, and that—in comparison to much greater transgressions—is almost never criticized as “unethical.” And I wonder how many of the top-level officeholders who’ve been caught cheating in epic ways got their start by offhandedly fixing constituents’ parking tickets.