Recently I discussed the Charbonneau Commission with a colleague, an eminent urban geographer. When I noted that these problems were occurring in Montreal, he added, "Yes--and in 50 other large North American cities"!
Perhaps 50 is a slightly exaggerated number. As I write, in April 2013, Kwame Kilpatrick, former mayor of Detroit, has been convicted on multiple counts of a racketeering conspiracy. Former mayor Ray Nagin of New Orleans has been indicted on 21 counts of conspiracy, bribery and money laundering. Former New York State assemblyman Jimmy Meng has been sentenced in a bribery scheme. Luke Ravenstahl, Mayor of Pittsburgh, will not run again because of a police scandal in his administration. New York City Councilman Dan Halloran, State Senator Malcolm Smith and four other political personalities have been arrested over an alleged conspiracy to pay tens of thousands of dollars in bribes to state Republican bosses to allow Smith to run for mayor of New York City. Here in high-minded, business-oriented Dallas, the city manager, Mary Suhm, lied to City Council about the granting of a lease to oil drillers which would permit "fracking" within city limits. And these are only a few examples taken from news reports in early 2013.
Clearly Montreal and Quebec are not alone in North America when it comes to urban political corruption. With the Charbonneau Commission shedding light on the corrupt practices, setting the stage for appropriate sanctions and new regulations, Quebec is doing more than many other North American political jurisdictions about these problems.
Let me try to place these developments in the context of broader historical trends. During the industrial era, the main struggle in North American urban politics was between "machine politics" and the forces of reform. This played out in Montreal, as it did in other North American cities, in roughly the first half of the twentieth century. Remember that Jean Drapeau was first elected in 1954 as a reform mayor. Our urban governments have since become professionalized in such fields as planning, economic development and public health. But, while political machines have withered away, "machine-style" politics still exists in different forms, in Montreal as in many other cities.
Machine-style politics is robust, in good part, because of the kinds of opportunity structures that exist in urban governance. Given the amount of money to be made in construction...