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Elect, Indict, Repeat: Will democracy, Illinois style, ever change?

In 1987, Yale political scientist Joseph LaPalombara published Democracy, Italian Style, the book containing his theory that Italians took perverse pride in their nation's widespread reputation for corrupt government. Italians liked the messy-looking postwar system, he claimed, because it functioned far better than outsiders realized, was less corrupt than they pretended and delivered sound economic outcomes as their governments rose and fell with astonishing speed. 

By 1994, however, Italy's political system had imploded. The long-standing major parties (Christian Democrats, Communists and Socialists) had broken into pieces and were displaced by new or newly prominent parties, incumbent politicians were jailed or exiled, and polls showed overwhelming public desire for major reforms. At some point in the late 1980s and early 1990s, all the winking and chuckling about corruption came to a halt. A judicial investigation nicknamed Clean Hands exposed the extent of graft and rule-breaking at all levels of government and played no small part in the sea change of public opinion.

Where Italy led, could Illinois follow? 

Illinois' reputation for corruption is well-documented. Nine men have served as governor in the past 50 years. Two — Democrat Otto Kerner and Republican George Ryan — were convicted of crimes they committed while in office. (Ryan is appealing his conviction.) Democrat Dan Walker also was imprisoned after he left office, but for crimes unconnected to his tenure as governor. And Republican William Stratton was indicted for tax evasion in connection to his use of campaign funds, but he was ultimately acquitted.

As Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich begins his second term, federal investigations of his administration's hiring and contract practices continue. His fundraiser and political adviser Antoin "Tony" Rezko has been indicted for an influence-peddling scheme. Though Blagojevich has not been charged with any wrongdoing himself, based on the persistent federal prosecutor's previous record, it's fair to say that could change. It is possible, in other words, that the majority of Illinois governors who served during the past half century could end up being indicted on corruption charges. 

That so many Illinoisans at state government's apex have been accused of crime raises the question of whether there is a culture of corruption. Not every governor has left office in disgrace, of course. But there is at least a superficial similarity among those who have been tainted by scandal. It is instructive, for instance, to compare the Ryan and Blagojevich administrations. 

Ryan didn't get rich committing the crimes for which he was convicted, was stripped of his pension and may still be imprisoned. He presided over a rotten system. Ryan was convicted of more than a dozen counts, mostly stemming from his term as secretary of state, that involved the sale of government licenses and the granting of contracts, leases and jobs in exchange for campaign contributions. The motivation for his misdeeds was not to build a private fortune — though some of his associates lined their pockets. Rather, the illegality boosted Ryan's power and perpetuated a personal political machine.

Federal investigations frequently take a long while to develop. Ryan's fate should be determined in 2007, more than a decade after some of the crimes for which he was convicted took place. Investigators worked from the outside in, beginning with small-scale violations by fairly low-level officials far removed from the executive suite. 

Investigation of the Blagojevich Administration may proceed more quickly. Patrick Fitzgerald, the same tenacious federal prosecutor who brought Ryan to justice, has already indicted Blagojevich ally Rezko for shaking down businesses seeking state contracts. Rezko was both a major fundraiser for the governor and a business partner of Blagojevich's wife Patti. Whether major figures in the administration have engaged in any wrongdoing could be answered quickly compared to the licenses-for-bribes probe that brought down Ryan.

Of course, this governor may emerge legally unscathed. Nonetheless, his administration already has produced fodder for prosecutors. Last summer, a letter from Fitzgerald to Attorney General Lisa Madigan indicated he was merging multiple investigations of fraud and illegal political influence in state hiring. "Our investigation has now implicated multiple state agencies and departments and we have developed a number of credible witnesses," he wrote. A further embarrassment for the governor was publication of a two-year-old, previously confidential, internal report in which the executive inspector general wrote that efforts by the governor's patronage office to control agency hiring reflected "not merely an ignorance of the law, but complete and utter contempt for the law."

Blagojevich campaigned in 2002 as a reformer who would deliver cleaner government. Indeed, his campaign made much of the alleged failure of his opponent, then-Attorney General Jim Ryan, to adequately investigate the actions of George Ryan (no relation, except in the minds of inattentive voters). What happened to that call for ethics? The governor's defenders would hasten to note that the critical inspector general's report was a consequence of genuine ethics reform. The office of inspector general was created in a measure signed by Blagojevich early in his first term. That defense, of course, would be more compelling if the report had not featured such a withering critique.

While few voters know the arcane details of patronage laws, they could understand the need for Blagojevich to explain a $1,500 check, purportedly a gift to one of his children, that came from the husband of a state employee who lacked obvious qualifications for her job. 

Winning (re-)election statewide is expensive. And Blagojevich had a record-setting war chest to fund his 2006 victory. Immediately after the spring primary elections, his campaign was able to run a steady stream of attack advertisements to sully the reputation of his Republican opponent, Treasurer Judy Baar Topinka. His chief weapon was to build in voters' minds a strong association between Topinka and Ryan, suggesting that she was compromised by his corruption. But did Blagojevich's strategy in raising the spectre of corruption create doubts about his own administration, giving him a Pyrrhic victory?

Ultimately, his fate rests not only in the hands of Fitzgerald and his team of investigators, but also in the minds of the public. Arguably, Blagojevich already has been vindicated in the court of public opinion by his rather easy re-election. After all, even the voters who said corruption and ethics were "extremely important" in an exit poll for CNN preferred Blagojevich to Topinka. That Blagojevich's margin over Topinka was even better among those less worried about corruption (9 percent for those saying it was "very important" and a whopping 37 percent among the few who thought it only "somewhat important") is surely little solace to the GOP.

But public reaction to scandals and systematic government rule-breaking can be as slow to build as a prosecutor's case. It could be significant that Blagojevich did comparatively poorly in the band of counties across the middle of the state where public interest in — and knowledge of — state government runs high. His vote share in Sangamon County, where the state's capital is located, was half of 2002's 43 percent. 

To be clear, few would argue that Illinois has squeaky clean and efficient government. Focusing on governors is a simple way to clarify the extent to which this state stands out, but abuses of power pop up at all levels of government in Illinois. The news in November that Ryan would be permitted to remain free on bail pending his appeal competed for headline space with the sentencing of Robert Sorich, a former top aide to Chicago Mayor Richard Daley. Sorich got 46 months in prison for engineering a fraud scheme designed to cloak political patronage hiring at City Hall. 

Mindful of the Italian model, then, there are at least three scenarios for change that, though perhaps far-fetched, are not flatly impossible. First, electoral reform was one result of the Italian voters' backlash against old-style insider politics. Here in Illinois, a grass-roots reform movement still agitates for the return of cumulative voting, a system in which voters cast three votes and three candidates were elected for each state House district. Ironically, the voters' call in 1980 for single-member House districts came in response to public perception that lawmakers were arrogant and, in some cases, outright corrupt. Shrinking the House, for most voters, was the main goal; ending multimember districts and plural voting was secondary. So perhaps the case for returning to cumulative voting could be made on reform grounds. Meanwhile, an instant runoff system for electing governors, wherein voters can rank the candidates, might also command broad appeal.

However, fiddling with electoral rules is unlikely to change the political culture as long as there are only two serious parties offering candidates. A second result of voters' backlash, then, could be the emergence of a viable candidate not associated with the major parties. In 2006, the Green Party's gubernatorial candidate Rich Whitney got more than 10 percent of the votes, a share that probably reflected protest against both Blagojevich and Topinka.

As a consequence of Whitney's unusually good showing, the party will enjoy automatic ballot access over the next four years. The Greens now have a small window to establish themselves as a realistic alternative and to build a coalition of supporters willing to break away from the dominant American bipolar pattern. Making clean government a plank to go with clean air and water would seem a natural move. In a variant of this scenario, a brand-new party or a nonpartisan outsider in the mold of Ross Perot or Jesse Ventura could elbow his or her way onto the scene. Again, there are at least hints that the voters of Illinois could be receptive to someone who seems capable of shaking up the status quo. If Blagojevich's legal problems worsen, the warmth of that reception would likely grow.

A third, perhaps more realistic, scenario is ethics reform from within. Politicians with their fingers to the wind might show more foresight than those Italians swept out of office on a tidal wave of indignation. Slapping the label "ethics" on some grab bag of measures is unlikely to be adequate. Genuine change must go beyond rhetoric or the imposition on state employees of  laughable annual quizzes. But such changes might depend on an outsider with fame, fortune or enough charisma to break into the political realm and pull reluctant insiders along.

Campaign finance, having had a starring role in recent hiring scandals, is a favorite target of reform advocates. Illinois has strong disclosure requirements, but virtually no limits on who can make campaign contributions to whom and how much they can give. 

Another approach might be to decentralize the power of party leaders by weakening their hold on legislators. Term limits would be an extreme remedy along those lines. Beyond the inspectors general, additional nonpartisan, nonelected watchdogs and ombudsmen could be appointed. And although this might seem far afield from corruption, the process of drawing legislative districts could be made nonpartisan. 

Illinois could breed a new style of politics if it followed the example of its neighbor Iowa and handed over electoral map-making power to a nonpartisan commission. 

Is Illinois so unusual? Ryan is not the only governor or ex-governor to fall from grace in recent memory. In the past two years, Republicans in Kentucky and Connecticut and a former Democratic governor of Alabama were indicted or convicted on corruption charges. The Democratic governor of New Jersey resigned while facing a sexual harassment lawsuit from an ex-employee with whom he admitted having had an adulterous affair. But no other state can boast a string of disgraced chief executives to rival the Land of Lincoln. Even states with reputations for being dirty (Louisiana, for example) can't match a record of four (maybe five) governors facing law trouble in the past half century.

Consider the contrast with Ohio. The Buckeye state was a disaster for the GOP in 2006, partly in reaction to scandals surrounding Gov. Bob Taft. But when Taft, in 2005, pleaded "no contest" to charges that he violated state ethics laws by accepting small gifts, he became the first governor in Ohio's history to be convicted. That comparison should drive home to Illinois residents and politicians that something is rotten in this state. 

Illinois voters may be less complacent than they look at first glance and, keeping Italy in mind, it should be clear that democracies that appear unconcerned about corruption can boil over when leaders least expect it. 

A half century 
of Illinois governors

9 governors
Republican William Stratton, 1953-1961
Democrat Otto Kerner, 
1961-1968
Democrat Samuel Shapiro, 1968-1969
Republican Richard Ogilvie, 1969-1973
Democrat Daniel Walker, 
1973-1977
Republican James Thompson, 1977-1991
Republican Jim Edgar, 
1991-1999
Republican George Ryan, 1999-2003
Democrat Rod Blagojevich, 2003-

4 indictments
Stratton — in 1965 on tax evasion charges related to campaign contributions

Kerner — in 1971 on bribery, conspiracy, tax evasion and mail fraud charges

Walker — in 1987 on bank fraud, misapplication of bank funds and perjury unrelated to his time in public office.

Ryan — in 2003 on racketeering, mail fraud, filing false tax returns, making false statements to the FBI and diverting campaign funds for personal use  

3 convictions
Kerner — in 1973. Entered prison in 
July 1974 and was released in May 1975

Walker — in 1987. Served 18 months of a seven-year sentence 

Ryan — 2006. Sentenced to six-and-a-half years. Prison time delayed pending appeals1 acquittal

Stratton — in 1965. His defense: Home improvements, dresses for his wife and other expenses to enrich his image were indirect campaign expenses, and cash he didn't report to the Internal Revenue Service came to him as gifts from admirers. 

The current governor
Rod Blagojevich's administration is under federal investigation. If federal prosecutors decide to accuse him of 
criminal wrongdoing, the majority of Illinois governors to serve in the last half century will have been indicted on corruption charges. 

SOURCES: Mostly Good and Competent Men, Illinois Issues reports


Brian J. Gaines is an associate professor of political science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the U of I's Institute of Government and Public Affairs.

Illinois Issues, January 2007

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