Abscam, an FBI sting operation of the late 1970s and early 1980s that targeted public corruption, is a strangely forgotten bit of American history. The Feds used a notorious con man and fake sheiks to solicit a slew of political favors. A U.S. senator, six House members and several local officials were convicted of bribery and conspiracy. It all seems like something out of a Hollywood blockbuster — and now, more than three decades later, it is.
American Hustle is a fictionalized telling of the Abscam operation. The movie saves most of its sympathy for Camden, N.J., Mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), a character closely based on Angelo Errichetti, who was caught in the Abscam bust and indicted in 1981.
Errichetti was the last white mayor of Camden. He was born to a large, poor immigrant family, and those working-class roots and his ability to connect with the city’s African American majority won him fast support. He entered office in 1973, just two years after race riots had ripped through the city. In 1977, 88 percent of voters re-elected him.
In American Hustle, Polito is similarly popular and at ease with the people of his city. Less complex than the real Errichetti, who took his share of kickbacks while appearing genuinely committed to staving off Camden’s decline, Polito is not looking for personal wealth when he helps bribe a sheik, but only economic growth for his city.
This friendly portrayal makes cinematic sense: American Hustle needs someone to root for, and there are few character types more compelling than the corrupt politician with a heart of gold. But the South Jersey machine that American Hustle depicts was very real, and it remains powerful today, though perhaps less blatantly corrupt.
In recent years, Democrats who hold office in the New Jersey suburbs of Philadelphia and around Atlantic City have forged an alliance of sorts with Republican Gov. Chris Christie. He has the backing of the undisputed king of the machine, George Norcross, part owner of the Philadelphia Inquirer and former chair of the Camden County Democratic Party. With friends like these, an outsized media presence and popularity among moderates, Christie coasted to re-election last year.
These increasingly complex webs of patronage in South Jersey buck national trends. In New York City, for example, old outer-borough machines are decaying, under pressure from the left-of-center Working Families Party and a progressive campaign finance system on one side, and technocratic liberals like former mayor Michael Bloomberg on the other. But in Jersey, people like Norcross, arguably the second most powerful person in the state, still run the show. As Philadelphia Magazine put it, “You can’t get [Norcross] on the phone. You can’t vote him out of office.”
After her defeat, Barbara Buono, Christie’s opponent, openly denounced Democratic political bosses for their hand in Christie’s victory. “They didn’t do it to help the state,” Buono said. “They did it … to help themselves politically and financially.”
South Jersey Democrats I spoke to say they “had no choice.” They built their machine in the 1990s after years of losing out on contracts and funding to the larger, more powerful districts in the north of the state. The self-described “ugly ducklings” wanted some bargaining power.
South Jersey Democrats may see themselves as David in the struggle against a Northern Goliath, but it’s hard to see what their dealings have actually gained their constituents. Beyond their own re-elections, that is: The New York Times reported in January that Christie agreed in 2013 to avoid campaigning against Norcross’ machine candidates.
Nor does the culture of elite backroom negotiation appear to be doing much for the state as a whole. According to preliminary estimates, New Jersey lost 36,300 jobs in December 2013 alone. Regional wrestling aside, more than ever it’s clear that the needs of the (largely African American) poor and working-classes in Camden and Atlantic City aren’t much different than those of the residents of Newark or Jersey City.
Without mass democratic movements that mobilize ordinary people to fight for their own interests, politics in New Jersey will remain an American hustle in its classic form: capricious, uncouth, charming and despicable.