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The best politics is good government

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When the Chris Christie administration suddenly closed lanes on the George Washington Bridge, his team broke the first rule of politics. It hurt people by using government for political gain.

But it was not the first Christie breach of the public trust. In October, he blew $12 million of taxpayers' money on a special election for the U.S. Senate vacancy just 20 days before the general election to avoid sharing the ballot with popular Democrat and Senate candidate Cory Booker.

The money spent on that unnecessary special election could have gone to still-struggling victims of Hurricane Sandy. Instead, it was used to salve the ego of this “Ralph Kramden” of governors, whose bellicose ways have charmed the media and public. Until the lane closings.

Christie denies any personal role in the bridge debacle. But using the government apparatus to punish your enemies, causing collateral damage to the citizenry, is bad politics and government. Most politicians try to help, not hurt, because helping is good political business and hurting is bad.

David L. Lawrence, legendary 20th-century political leader, mayor of Pittsburgh and governor of Pennsylvania, was known for saying, “The best politics is good government.”

Lawrence, the father of modern Pittsburgh, followed his mantra and the clean air and water and sparkling Downtown and vibrant neighborhoods he left behind are the result of that. His partnership with Richard King Mellon, the staunch Republican and banking scion, was not without political risks. But both knew it was essential to reinventing Pittsburgh.

In “Don't Call Me Boss: Pittsburgh's Renaissance Mayor,” Michael P. Weber describes how Lawrence perceived his duty to his constituents.

“His policies on smoke control, taxation and labor negotiations, among others, all generated considerable opposition during his mayoralty. Several were potentially disastrous to his political career, yet he followed the policy he thought correct regardless of political consequences,” Weber writes.

Lawrence, a fierce New Deal Democrat, steadfastly kept his political interests separate from his government responsibilities and this became public policy when he was elected mayor. Until the end, “good government” came first, and political success naturally followed.

While it is easy to claim that politics is no longer like that, the good and smart politicians of today still follow the Lawrence model. And when they do not — mixing politics into government and using government for political advantage — they risk scandal and worse, even jail.

Aristotle claimed politics is noble. That might be too far a reach for most people. But it is hard to deny Winston Churchill's view, one that implies a duty to the citizen, the customer. Said Churchill, “Politics is not a game. It is an earnest business.”

Joseph Sabino Mistick, a lawyer, law professor and political analyst, lives in Squirrel Hill (SabinoMistick@aol.com).

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