Why Is Illinois So Corrupt?

We asked experts on local government to explain the causes of the state’s sleazy political culture. Without so much as a wink or a nod, they gave answers

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When federal agents arrested Governor Rod Blagojevich two years ago—interrupting what the U.S. attorney Patrick Fitzgerald called “a political corruption crime spree”—Robert Grant, head of the FBI’s Chicago office, offered a succinct analysis of the day’s events. “If [Illinois] isn’t the most corrupt state in the United States,” he said, “it is certainly one hell of a competitor.”

Given the abundance and variety of political scandals in the state, it’s hard to disagree. Over the past 40 years, about 1,500 people—including 30 Chicago aldermen—have been convicted for bribery, extortion, embezzlement, tax fraud, and other forms of corruption, according to Dick Simpson, head of the political science department at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Three former Illinois governors have gone to prison, and a fourth soon could be locked up if a jury convicts Blagojevich in his upcoming retrial on corruption and conspiracy charges.

Still, it’s hard to find empirical data that confirm Illinois as the king of crookedness. The U.S. Department of Justice tracks federal corruption convictions through its Public Integrity Section. Examinations of department data from several recent ten-year periods show that Illinois has mostly ranked among the top ten states in federal corruption convictions per capita, though two years ago it fell to an almost respectable 18th—which may demonstrate the limitations of such studies. In any case, these tallies reflect only the subset of wrongdoers cloddish enough to have gotten caught. And the cohort of crooks is merely the tip of the viceberg, so to speak, in a state where pitifully weak campaign finance and ethics laws are so easy to game legally. Considering the totality of government chicanery in Illinois—from the illegal to the merely questionable—the political consultant Don Rose concludes, “It’s fair to say we’re among two or three states that would vie for the honor [of most corrupt].”

But if that’s true, how did Illinois and Chicago get so good at being so bad? And why is the local political culture so slimy compared with, say, Wisconsin’s or Iowa’s? To find out, I consulted 20 or so historians, good-government advocates, and longtime political observers and insiders. Explaining why so many fools rush in to city, county, and state government in Illinois—and then never seem to leave unless led away in handcuffs—is “like finding the cure to the common cold,” says Cindi Canary, director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform. “It’s impossible to point to a definitive answer.” Nonetheless, she and other followers of the local political scene gamely offered some astute theories.

Old habits die hard. About 180 years ago, a real-estate boom blossomed on the flat, marshy terrain at the mouth of the Chicago River, attracting speculators and hustlers seeking their fortunes. “Chicago got its start in the 1830s by people buying and selling land titles in a swamp,” says James Merriner, former political editor of the Chicago Sun-Times and author of several books on Illinois politics, including Grafters and Goo Goos, which chronicles Chicago’s history of corruption and reform. “So it was get rich quick, the ethos of the fast buck. That was the founding of Chicago and urban Illinois, and it has stayed with us.”

That spirit of unrestrained self-interest expressed itself in a particular kind of politician, one who saw government not as a noble calling but as an opportunity for advancement and enrichment. Politics was “a vocation, a business, a way to get ahead,” says Kent Redfield, a political science professor at the University of Illinois at Springfield. Instead of serving the public interest, government was “about power and control, personal advantage and personal gain.”

As Chicago grew in the 19th century and the boodle began to flow, opportunities for politicians to line their pockets multiplied. The city’s first corruption trial took place in 1869, resulting in jail sentences for four officials. Chicago gave the world the outlandishly corrupt First Ward aldermen “Bathhouse” John Coughlin and Michael “Hinky Dink” Kenna—who controlled police, zoning, and vice in their ward from the end of the 19th century to well into the next—and scores of other less colorful but still crooked characters.

Over time, the blurry line between public responsibility and private interest gained cultural acceptance, says Larry Bennett, a political science professor at DePaul University. The latest poster boy for that ethical ambiguity is Blagojevich, who seemingly saw the chance to auction off a U.S. Senate seat (for campaign cash or jobs for him and his wife) as a “[bleeping] golden” opportunity. “He just couldn’t get it through his head that there was a difference between advancing Rod and advancing the public good,” Bennett says. “He was just going about his business in the classic political way here, and at one time in Illinois, everyone bought into that.”

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Illustration: The Heads of State

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4 years ago
Posted by Paul

Its corrupt because the "people" allow it. One on has to look at the history of Illinois.
And all the same names come up like Stratton, Kerner, Walker, Ryan and those are
just the governors, not to mention congressmen, representatives, and aldermen that
have enriched themselves. So I blame the people of Illinois and all the power brokers
and special interests and the unions. But most of all the people that are a burden on
society, the ones that are on the take, who think only the fools go to work everyday.

4 years ago
Posted by chicagoguy10

Illionis has more miniority Asisan people in the TOP positions. Whereever you see oriented people on high positions, you will see more and more corrections.

4 years ago
Posted by Griffmaster01

I love living in Chicago, it is the biggest city I've ever been to, but our use of money does seem frighteningly unbalanced at times.

Perfect example: We have a statue, "The Bean", in Millenium Park that cost some $23 million to build, nearly 4 times its original budget.
That's so much more money than the city spends helping the homeless, providing healthcare, preventing another great Chicago fire, even more than what the city spends on helping the poor heat their homes in our brutal winters.

Though bought by mostly private investors, why would so much money be spent on what is basically just a big shiny thing? It is because they wanted it to generate tourism and more money.
Instead of using the money we already have wisely, we just use it to try to get MORE money.

Healthy, working, average people generate money!
Why did we spend so much on decorations?!
Especially when that money could have helped so many people in need.

4 years ago
Posted by Johnny McFeely

Cuz dat's da way it iz. You gotta problem wit dat? Maybe use guys wood like to go fer a ride...

4 years ago
Posted by Office of Federal Contracts and Compliance

Without the billions in federal funding in the form of grants and contracts given to the City/State by Washington entities like the Depratment of Justice and other big ticket agencies the City and State would not and could not run their clout machines. It is a joke to have Sorich and Sanchez sent to jail for illegal hiring corruption while at the same time all the money to fund the schemes came from the federal government, who funds over a third of the City and State's annual budgets.

So Mr. Fitzgerald make big headlines by prosecuting clout barnacles, but all he really needs to do is turn off the faucet flooding the City/State with billions in federal funding. Federal law dictates that with hiring corruption the state and city should not receive and are ineligible to receive federal funding, but miraculously it keeps coming by the truck load. So who is corrupt in this instance? The entities who fund it. It's all one big cycle of fingerpointing not designed to tackle the problem. Stop funding corruption and corruption will stop.The big funders are by way of federal contracts and grants. Place a monitor over those funds and assure compliance and you will see corruption dwindle.

4 years ago
Posted by Office of Federal Contracts and Compliance

Without the billions in federal funding in the form of grants and contracts given to the City/State by Washington entities like the Depratment of Justice and other big ticket agencies the City and State would not and could not run their clout machines. It is a joke to have Sorich and Sanchez sent to jail for illegal hiring corruption while at the same time all the money to fund the schemes came from the federal government, who funds over a third of the City and State's annual budgets.

So Mr. Fitzgerald make big headlines by prosecuting clout barnacles, but all he really needs to do is turn off the faucet flooding the City/State with billions in federal funding. Federal law dictates that with hiring corruption the state and city should not receive and are ineligible to receive federal funding, but miraculously it keeps coming by the truck load. So who is corrupt in this instance? The entities who fund it. It's all one big cycle of fingerpointing not designed to tackle the problem. Stop funding corruption and corruption will stop.The big funders are by way of federal contracts and grants. Place a monitor over those funds and assure compliance and you will see corruption dwindle.

4 years ago
Posted by Joe G.

I'm convinced the Feds made a deal with Hizzoner. Retire from office and politics and do not use your influence in any capacity and we will not prosecute you for the misdeeds that took place under your administration. I'd also be willing to bet that this deal originated from Obama's inner circle, namely, well you know who.

One idea that might be helpful; term limits. We had the Daley, Stroger and the Madigan dynasties. Time to give some new crooks a fair chance.

4 years ago
Posted by Mperiod

Isn't Chicago so corrupt, because, well the media says its so corrupt. I'm not saying the city doesn't have an ethics in government problem, but there's really no actual evidence that Chicago, or Illinois in general is head and shoulders more corrupt than the rest of the country.

Studies on corruption in government find Illinois is bad, but not the worst. (however anytime anyone brings up the studies, people tend to do like this article does, and declare the study is flawed) However when asked specifically why the state is considered the most corrupt, nobody can ever offer any evidence. For every blago and ryan,I can throw around half a dozen other states, just of the top of my head who've had more corruption at the state/national office level.

Again im not saying Chicago/Illinois doesn't have its ethics issues, because being in the top 10/top 20 (depending on how far you go back) in corruption isn't great, but alot of this "why is the state the most corrupt", type talk, is simply because it would seem as if people have already decided its true, thus regardless, if 1 in every 100000000 politician in the state is actually corrupt, that 1 becomes the smoking gun that the state is full of corruption.

4 years ago
Posted by Warner Todd Huston

One word explains why Chicago is so corrupt: Democrats.

4 years ago
Posted by cleo

Where's mine?

4 years ago
Posted by nell1775

Because of I I I I. I GOT ELECTED. I WANT WHAT I WANT. I WANT TO DO WHAT I WANT TO DO. AND I AM GONNA DO WHAT I WANT TO DO WHEN I WANT TO DO IT.

4 years ago
Posted by rnchome

And as we all think About all of the corruption and insanity ... think and look at what is happening to our young people. They are the ones that are going to be running things very soon. They have no respect for themselves let alone any one else. Remember the bartender with his gun under the counter for the ones that get out of control in his bar? so now the new young mayor etc will be. And his excuse will be? Man, cause I didn't like the way you walked into the room. Bang dead. We arent setting any earth shaking examples here. The governments don't get real punishments so why bother punishing anyone else? Why have rules and laws when no one will enforce them or follow them? Why do the right thing, when it might tick off someone in the "ring"? Everyone is asking everyday, what is happening to Chicago? Its not just chicago, even the "safe" small home towns are victim too. Mr. Stevenson made a very good point, "Why elect an honest person?" Because we are afraid of honesty and integrity. PERIOD. Because the powers that be are afraid of being caught in all their fancy wonderment. What is wrong with honesty and integrity? Nothing. What if our young people learned just those 2 things? Instead of me me me, hate, kill, lie, cheat and steal? Imagine being able to trust the person standing next to you, riding your bike home from school and not being shot down because of a "mistake?" Think about all of this folks, REALLY THINK

4 years ago
Posted by Dave Densmore

It's the stupidity of the citizens of Chicago and Cook County. A prime example is newly elected County Assessor Joe Berrios. Even though he was exposed as a walking,talking conflict of interest, he was elected to office. What the first thing he does?, hire his son and his sister. This is where corruption starts. Overpaid,under-qualified people doing un-necessary jobs.

4 years ago
Posted by morgan

We like corruption. Another form of entertainment. Also, we prefer not to
look at the freight train that's been coming at us for the last twenty years
and is about to take us under. Fun.

3 years ago
Posted by Ortho Stice

Chicago always has been "the city that works." Part of the reason that it works is because its legislators view themselves as commission sales people. Commission sales people are always more motivated than those who are salaried.

That's a glib, facile answer, but it might not be far from the truth.

Why do we keep electing corrupt politicians who view their jobs as commission sales gigs?

Because Chicago is the city that works.

3 years ago
Posted by judicial honesty 4 kids

Lake County especially the court filthy too. They're so busy in Cook, Lake is the 'little cook' that got away. Ruthless, blantant disregard for the law. If that's the bedrock, there's no hope.

3 years ago
Posted by Vergon Parado

THE CITY OF CHICAGO SPENT 500 MILLION DOLLARS IN A PARK AND ON TOP OF IT THE PARK WAS ALREADY THERE ! THE PEOPLE OF ILLINOIS DID NOT SAID A THING! IT IS LIKE THEY ARE HYPNOTIZED. THE PEOPLE OF ILLINOIS DESERE WHAT THEY GET FO BEING SO DUMB !

8 months ago
Posted by heeger.org

Illinois eavesdropping law is made to create a child for the corrupt. they voted it into law so that if they are uncovered , you'll go down. Orderofpersecution.blogspot.com

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