Whether they know it or not, most local political parties have a great deal of power. Almost all of the people we vote for have been selected and, where allowed by law, endorsed by a local political party. Most of the people who are appointed to boards and commissions in your county have also been approved by local political parties. In most places, these local political parties determine who runs our communities. However, when local political parties do not exercise their real power, the void is filled by special interests.
One of the principal roles a political party has, at least in theory, is assuring the public that its candidates have been screened in some valuable way. Anyone can put her name on a ballot, but what do we know about her? Can we know if she is competent, decent, sane? If she has been approved by a party, people have met her, worked with her, asked her questions. The question is, does a political party have a responsibility to choose candidates who are ethical? Or, to put it the other way, what is the responsibility of a political party when someone it chooses acts unethically, not in a minor way, but in a serious way?
Several years ago, a nearby state's Republican party chair chose not to run for re-election, and his stated reason for this decision was, “I’m tired of those who are obsessed with seeing conspiracies around every corner and who have terribly misguided notions of what the role of the state party is." He also felt these "nuts," as he called them, had lost the party too many elections.
The chair's concern is not about ethics, of course, but about the competence and sanity of selected candidates. Although he seems more concerned about losing elections, he at least seems willing to resign rather than misuse his prestige to support candidates he feels are unfit for office.
The Ethics Power of Local Political Parties
Let's get back to the local level. A city has a terrible ethics environment. Elected officials are giving their friends (and each other) no-bid contracts, the budget is a bunch of lies, citizens are intimidated if they speak up. What is the responsibility of the political party in power for what is happening?
All the party has to do is remove its support from one candidate and publicly say why, and the game will be over. Even discussing this possibility openly would be big news and would move the city toward dealing with its problems rather than denying them.
The tendency for any group is to circle the wagons when things go wrong. This is especially true of a group whose principal purpose is to obtain and retain power. Anything that might jeopardize its hold on power is very difficult to do, even if everyone realizes it is the responsible thing to do.
Party Codes of Ethics
Here is where laws are worthless. No law is going to make political parties responsible for the candidates they endorse. Companies are responsible for their product endorsements, but this does not extend to politics. This doesn't mean that party endorsements are worthless, only that those who make them are generally unwilling to admit that they were wrong and do something about it. I don't think we need laws on this, but I do think we need party codes of ethics.
Such things do exist, although they take very different forms. The kind I'm talking about is exemplified by a code of ethics that actually sets rules for officeholders and candidates. There are basic conflict of interest and gift provisions for elected and appointed officials. There is a provision that does not allow the endorsement of indicted candidates and, if they have been endorsed already, the removal of support, both financial and otherwise. There is even a provision whereby any official who is indicted is expected to seek a speedy trial. Unfortunately, none of this applies to unethical conduct short of criminal indictment. But it shows at least some concern for the public and some responsibility for endorsed officials.
More typical are party codes of ethics that apply only to party officials' conflicts of interests. Such codes of ethics do not apply to or require the party to take any responsibility for officials or candidates. Typical is the Republican Party of Illinois' central committee code of ethics. Or, for that matter, the non existing code of ethics in the UTGOP! Think about it, without a code of ethics, there are no conflicts of interest...right?
The most extreme code I found, in terms of not taking responsibility for officials and candidates in the party, is the Republican Party of Florida's Oath of Party Loyalty and Ethical Conduct. The code of ethics part does require not only ethical conduct, but the reporting of unethical conduct by party officers. But only party officers. The oath part emphasizes how much the ethical requirements do not apply to officials and candidates who are not party officers:
I, ___________________________, hereby swear or affirm that during my term of office:
a. In a partisan general election in which the Republican Party has a candidate, I will not actively, publicly, or financially support the election of any candidate other than the Republican Party’s nominee;
b. In a non-partisan election (other than a judicial election) in which a registered Republican is participating, I will not actively, publicly, or financially support the election of any candidate other than a registered Republican;
This is a party-do-or-die oath. If the party nominee is unfit for the job, local party officers can't support anyone else. And since pointing out the unfitness would be support of other candidates, this puts the party officer in a serious conflict position: let the public know what you know and resign or protect yourself by hurting the public.
This is not a Republican Party thing. The Maryland Democratic Party has a similar provision in its bylaws, but it goes further by expressly making support for non-Democratic candidates grounds for disqualification and removal (Article III.6a). Hmmm...removal from the party?
A Party's Responsibility
How often is an unethical candidate who could win ever dumped by his party? After all, officials have been elected while in prison, with the endorsement of their party. But at least most people know this. It's when people don't know that parties have the greatest responsibility to disclose what they know.
In Utah, a party’s responsibility is greater in a city or county dominated by one party, that is, where the primary is the major election. In such places, there is no question of losing party control. It's all about the power plays within the party. Therein lies our challenge as conservative Republicans.
I realize that this is a dream. No one can expect a party to disclose the wrongs its officers know have been committed. But then they should also not argue that one of their purposes is to screen candidates. Saying this gives them an obligation to actually do it.
If local political parties play the role they do, they should be held to some responsibility for their actions. At the very least, an ethics code's complicity and knowledge provision could be applied to them as well as to government officials and employees. But it would be best if they would embrace this responsibility themselves and support their inclusion in local ethics programs.