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‘I see my opportunity and I take it’

Live from Saipan By Zaldy Dandan

Saipan — Since it was sworn in early this year, the new CNMI administration has been complaining about its predecessor’s “highly questionable” if not “probably illegal” use of American Rescue Plan Act funds.

Last month, the new administration informed the public about a report from the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Inspector General, which “found approximately $11 million in questioned costs on the CNMI’s use of Coronavirus Relief Funds.” The new governor said his administration will “hold individuals accountable for any activities deemed illegal or in direct violation of the…guidelines and requirements.”

Meanwhile, in Anaheim, California, the former mayor agreed to plead guilty to federal charges involving the sale of Angel Stadium. According to the Los Angeles Times, the charges against the former mayor “include lying to FBI agents about not expecting to receive anything from the Angels when the transaction closed — secret recordings captured him saying he hoped to secure a $1-million campaign contribution — and destroying an email in which he provided confidential information about the city’s negotiations to a team consultant.”

Says the title of an opinion column posted on CalMatters, a nonpartisan and nonprofit news organization:

“Anaheim joins long list of corruption-plagued cities in Southern California.”

The scandal in the city “is the latest in a string of municipal corruption cases that have become commonplace in Southern California.”

“How many other Southern California municipal corruption cases are out there waiting to be discovered?” the columnist asked.


In Los Angeles, an LA Times editorial in June stated:

“Here we go again.

“Los Angeles City Hall, which has lurched from scandal to scandal in recent years, has been hit with yet another elected official accused of corruption. City Councilmember Curren Price was charged…with embezzlement, perjury and conflict of interest for allegedly having a financial interest in projects that he voted on.

“Price is now the fourth member of the City Council who has faced corruption charges and been accused of using public office for personal gain. The fourth in three years!”

Now the U.S. is considered the world’s oldest democracy with a constitution in effect since 1788. Today, America’s politicians and government officials at all levels should already be familiar with how democratic politics works in theory — and in practice. They would not have been surprised by the corruption stories from California or from any other state or territory for that matter.

George Washington Plunkitt (1842-1924) of New York would have been amused.

A state legislator and a leader of the Democratic Party’s (in)famous political machine, Tammany Hall, Plunkitt was a grandmaster of politics. His “Very Plain Talks on Very Practical Politics” was first published in 1905, and is still available in paperback, on Kindle or online. What many of us would end up learning after decades of observing and studying politics is all there in that thin volume (less than 100 pages).


Arthur Mann, in his introduction to the 1963 paperback edition of Plunkitt’s book, asked,

“Do you want to break into politics? Plunkitt tells you how: don’t go to college and stuff your head with rubbish, but get out among your neighbors and relatives and round up a few votes that you can call your own…. Why don’t reformers last in politics? Because they’re amateurs…and there’s nothing like a pro” in politics.

Plunkitt’s advice to aspiring politicians is timeless. To hold a district, he says, “you must study human nature and act accordin’…. [Y]ou have to go among the people, see them and be seen. I know every man, woman and child in [my] district, except them that’s been born this summer — and I know some of them, too. I know what they like and what they don’t like, what they are strong at and what they are weak in, and I reach them by approachin’ at the right side…. I don’t trouble them with political arguments…. No, I don’t send them campaign literature. That’s rot. People can get all the political stuff they want to read — and a good deal more, too — in the papers. Who reads speeches…anyway? It’s bad enough to listen to them…. What tells in holdin’ your grip on your district is to go right down among the poor families and help them in the different ways they need help…. It’s philanthropy, but it’s politics, too — mighty good politics…. The poor are the most grateful people in the world and, let me tell you, they have more friends in their neighborhoods than the rich have in theirs…. Another thing, I can always get a job for a deservin’ man….”

That is, a voter.

For Plunkitt, “there’s no crime as mean as ingratitude in politics.” He said “the ingrate in politics never flourishes long…. The politicians who make a lastin’ success in politics are the men who are always loyal to their friends, even up to the gates of State prison….”

Plunkitt also believed that a successful politician does not drink. No one, he said, can manage a district long if he drinks. “He’s got to have a clear head all the time…. The district leader makes a business of politics, gets his livin’ out of it, and, in order to succeed, he’s got to keep sober just like in any other business.”

Plunkitt admitted that he had “made a fortune out of [politics], and I’m gettin’ richer everyday but I’ve not gone in for dishonest graft,” which involves using one’s political power to engage in illegal activities such as bribery or embezzlement. No sir. Plunkitt was into “honest graft”:

“My party's in power in the city, and it's goin' to undertake a lot of public improvements. Well, I'm tipped off, say, that they're going to lay out a new park at a certain place.


“I see my opportunity and I take it. I go to that place and I buy up all the land I can in the neighborhood. Then the board of this or that makes its plan public, and there is a rush to get my land, which nobody cared particular for before.

“Ain't it perfectly honest to charge a good price and make a profit on my investment and foresight? Of course, it is. Well, that's honest graft.”

According to Arthur Mann, when Plunkitt died in 1924, The Nation, “one of the outstanding journals of advanced opinion, commemorated [him] as ‘one of the wisest men in American politics….’ He understood that in politics, ‘honesty doesn’t matter; efficiency doesn’t matter; progressive vision doesn’t matter. What matters is the chance of a better job, a better price for wheat, better business conditions.”

Zaldy Dandan is editor of the CNMI’s oldest newspaper, Marianas Variety. His fourth book, “If He Isn’t Insane Then He Should Be: Stories & Poems from Saipan,” is available on Send feedback to

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