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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.”
Illustration: The Heads of State