Down here in Texas we often make jokes about the day to day tolerance of political corruption in Louisiana. Up in New England they joke about the inbred machine politics of Rhode Island. In the mid-Atlantic states they poke fun at West Virginia’s backwoods, populist good-old-boy system. Out on the west coast they point the naughty finger at Nevada. But today we all stand in awe of the magnificent pinnacle of unassailable perfection in the art of political corruption which is the state of Illinois.
With the state’s last governor still serving his six and a half year sentence for bribery, kickbacks, extortion, fraud and money laundering, you would think that Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich might think twice about getting involved in any kind of political scandal. Yet it’s almost as if he took former governor George Ryan’s remarkably corrupt term as a challenge to see if he could commit even more crimes in the same time period before getting dragged away in handcuffs. What’s more, Blagojevich knew from early in his administration that relentless Federal Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald was investigating him, and that even more eyes were on him with the impending institution of Illinois’ strict new ethics law. Yet it apparently never occured to him that someone might be listening when he started soliciting bribes, trying to extort money from charities and opening what amounted to a private auction to sell the Senate seat vacated by president-elect Obama to the highest bidder.
Illinois does have a history of producing some great and honorable politicians, including the Great Emancipator Abraham Lincoln, Stephen Douglas who preferred being right to being president, progressive era icon John Altgeld and Adlai Stevenson the indefatigable champion of liberalism. But the state does have a history of political corruption centered around the Daley machine in Chicago, founded by notorious and ruthless Mayor Richard J. Daley and continued by his sons, including current Chicago mayor Richard M. Daley and influential Democratic power broker William Daley who is on the Obama transition team.
Yet the state capital at Springfield seems to be a sort of roach motel for corrupt leaders, sending a governor to jail every decade for the last 40 years and seeing numerous corruption scandals take down lesser politicians as well. Governor Otto Kerner (1961-1968) was convicted of 17 felony counts, including bribery, perjury and conspiracy. Governor Daniel Walker (1973-1977) was convicted of bank fraud and sentenced to 7 years in prison. Governor George Ryan (1999-2003) still has 4 years to go on his sentence. Now it looks like Governor Blagojevich will be joining them. For comparison, during the same time period Texas has had more governors and not one of them has spent any time in jail.
Even in this rogues gallery Blagojevich really shines forth. He was voted the Least Popular Governor in America with an approval rating even lower than President Bush. He’s so unpopular that the Chicago Tribune suggested passing a new law to allow for popular recall of elected officials, and as of last month only 10% of Illinois voters said they would ever vote for him again. This was even before the full scope of his criminality had come to light. Voters were unhappy enough with his high-handed dealings with the legislature, feuds with newspapers and draconian positions on issues like gun rights and traffic enforcement. There was discussion of impeachment, but apparently Blagovich’s behavior was close enough to the norm and certainly familiar enough as part of state tradition, that the legislature never followed through.
Blagovich’s rapid decline down the road to his arrest began after his election to a second term, which launched a virtual orgy of suspect wheeling and dealing in an apparent attempt to improve his family’s troubled finances. Although the current indictments are based on evidence which was gathered recently, there are ongoing investigations of dozens of substantial allegations of bribery, nepotism, kickbacks, shakedowns, influence peddling, racketeering, fraud — well, just about every felonious abuse of power you can imagine. Plus he was an unindicted co-conspirator in the Tony Rezko case. Prosecutors had been working hard to send Blagojevich to jail for years and then he decides to just throw himself into the inferno with some of the most boneheaded behavior of any politician in recent years, surpassing even William Jefferson and his freezer full of cash.
In the end, the big question about Blagojevich is just how stupid and arrogant are you when you know you’re under investigation by multiple law agencies for dozens of crimes, yet you openly solicit bribes and offer to effectively auction off a Senate seat without even the minimal common sense of investing in a throwaway TracPhone. Even the most strung-out crack dealer in Chicago knows better than to talk crime on his personal cell phone.
The larger question is what is wrong with the political culture of Illinois that it could produce a series of governors who seem so firmly convinced that their office included a mandate to enrich themselves criminally. They didn’t come up with this idea on their own. They have to have seen their mentors in politics in Chicago and Springfield doing the same thing and getting away with it, giving them an expectation that it was a perk of office and they could do it too. Illinois produced Honest Abe and even Honest Adlai a very long time ago. Perhaps after Dishonest Blago we’ll start to think twice about where our politicians come from and the political tradition that shapes their ethical values.