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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

Illustration: The Heads of State

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.”

That’s where the money was.

Though greed is essential to a corrupt political system, it requires the nourishment of opportunity to thrive. And 19th-century Chicago, with its breakneck economic growth and bountiful vice, was a rich environment for ambitious opportunists. As the city boomed into a colossus that dominated Illinois, its political culture spread though the state. “The Chicago way became the Illinois way,” says Merriner.

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that other Midwestern states with agrarian economies and without big, booming industrial cities—think Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Iowa—developed governments that today are considered cleaner and more open than that of Illinois. “If you’re out on a farm, there isn’t all that much to be corrupt about,” says Gary MacDougal, a former corporate chief executive and a past chairman of the Illinois Republican Party. “You’re not looking for sewers and garbage pickup or inspections to get your liquor license or zoning changes to build a high-rise. If you look at the political activity in a big city, particularly one like Chicago, compared to the political activity in a farm state, there are far more opportunities for moderately paid state and city employees to control or affect large amounts of money. It’s that dynamic that creates corruption.”

While much of Illinois may have had more in common with Iowa than with Chicago, even areas downstate had what Redfield calls “a high-stakes economic culture.” There were private fortunes to be made—not to mention public jobs and contracts to hand out—building railroads, canals, bridges, and other projects. “This is a state where there’s been stuff to fight about,” Redfield says, which is why “there was a lot of corruption back in the economic development of Illinois. There were opportunities for the private sector to get advantages from government and for government to leverage its power.”

We ain’t ever been ready for reform.

From the post–Civil War era through the first few decades of the 20th century, a “criminal-political alliance” operated in many big cities in the United States, says Don Rose. In places like Chicago, he points out, “it was very hard to tell the politicians from the real crooks. You go back far enough, and it was the aldermen who ran all the vice in the city.”

In the late 19th century, that criminal-political alliance helped fuel the rise of political party machines. “The machine got money from gambling and prostitution that funded elections,” says Robert Lombardo, an assistant professor of criminal justice at Loyola University. Machines proved highly effective at getting out the vote on election day by rewarding supporters with patronage jobs and other spoils.

But in some cities, reform movements stirred to fight for more open and honest government. In states such as Wisconsin and Minnesota, progressive reformers won broad public support for laws that weakened political party machines. In Chicago, though, reformers never gained much traction—perhaps in part because of the city’s large population of immigrants, says Simpson. As waves of Irish, German, Jewish, and other immigrants arrived, the machine helped them find housing and jobs, favors that the grateful new citizens repaid at the ballot box.

Blame it on Scarface.

One reason Chicago may have resisted reform was that the Mob developed a greater presence here than elsewhere in the Midwest. Wayne Steger, who teaches political science at DePaul, speculates that organized crime created a “threat mechanism” that deterred reformers from pushing for changes that would have undercut the patronage system and the crooked politicians with ties to gangsters.

“Chicago boosters hate it when anyone mentions the name Al Capone,” says James Merriner. “[The Mob] was the disease of the 1920s, but we’ve never completely cured ourselves of that combination of organized crime and local government.”

“The Capone syndicate became the intermediaries between City Hall and the underworld,” says Lombardo. “That money [from organized crime] was used to fund the Cook County Democratic Party all the way up to the time of Richard J. Daley, [who] did not cooperate at all with the Mob, though he didn’t move against it, either.”

The Boss ruled.

By the end of World War II, most big-city machines were fading away or had already vanished, thanks to “reform movements backed by the business communities of those towns,” says Rose. “This never happened in Chicago.” Perhaps the key to the machine’s longevity in Chicago and Cook County was the political “genius” of Richard J. Daley, says Merriner. Daley, first elected in 1955, wanted to be remembered as a builder. O’Hare Airport, the Dan Ryan Expressway, and the University of Illinois at Chicago were just some of the major public-works projects built during his long reign. “Public works mean the construction trades get work, obviously, but also the bond lawyers, the underwriters,” says Merriner. “Everybody’s happy.” With so much money to be made, the business establishment had little motivation to push back against the corruption that kept the Democratic machine greased and running.

Divided we stood.

There may have been more to the corporate alliance with Daley than just contracts. During the fifties and sixties, thousands of blacks were moving from the South to Chicago and other big cities in the North. Members of the business establishment knew racial migration was transforming the city, and they feared the repercussions. They had an understanding with Daley that he would “do something about controlling the tide of the black population,” says Rose. “They were trying to keep the city white and keep the blacks away from downtown.” Daley, he says, “used city planning as a tool to stem the flow and protect downtown. That was the basis of the alliance between business and politics and the corruption that came with it.”

Rose theorizes that a similar “unspoken bargain between the machine and its constituencies” kept reform at bay under Richard M. Daley after he became mayor in 1989. Before he was elected, the city had endured the tumultuous and racially charged Council Wars during the tenure of Harold Washington, the city’s first African American mayor. Rose says there was little pressure for the younger Daley to clean up corruption because white voters saw him as a “bulwark” against the ascendancy of black political power in the city.

After the administration of Washington and of his successor, Eugene Sawyer, there was a view among whites that “racial divisiveness was destroying the city, that we needed to get back to stability,” says Laura Washington, a columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times. “And stability meant a white mayor who was going to make sure that the interests of ethnic whites were protected.” To Daley’s credit, says Rose, he turned out to be an inclusive mayor, under whose leadership racial and ethnic tensions ebbed.

The machine retooled.

Corruption continued to thrive locally, in part because the Democratic machine proved remarkably adaptable. “The constituents of the machine have changed,” says Merriner. “It used to be city and county payrollers and organized labor.” But the Shakman decrees curbed patronage, and the nature of politics changed. Being able to field a large army of precinct workers to get out the vote became less important than funding political campaigns to get out the message. “If you look at the contributors to Richard M. Daley, it’s lawyers and accountants and developers,” says Merriner. “They are the undergirders of the machine.”

Of course, most generous donors don’t give merely out of purity of heart. “Those large sums of money from all kinds of special interests—they’re invested for a purpose,” says Adlai Stevenson III, the former U.S. senator and two-time unsuccessful candidate for governor of Illinois. “Who’s going to invest in an honest politician?” Many donors expect to be rewarded with lucrative contracts, changes in policies that favor their interests, or other politically directed largesse. Until last year, Illinois was one of just a handful of states with almost no limits on campaign contributions, creating “tremendous potential for legalized bribery,” says Steger. Critics of the campaign finance reform passed last year by the General Assembly say Illinois remains the Wild West of campaign finance.

It’s all in the family.

The Daleys are the most visible example of another characteristic of local government: It’s a family business (with friends welcome, too). Just as the Flying Wallendas have their high wire, the Daleys have their government positions—as do the Strogers and the Madigans and the Hyneses. But it’s not just the dynasties for which public office has become a birthright. “I’m talking about the people whose grandfathers were precinct captains, and now they’re precinct captains,” says Dominic Pacyga, a political science professor at Columbia College. “The father worked for the waterworks; now his kids work for the waterworks; and his grandchildren are getting ready to work for the waterworks—or the fire department or the police department. So you get these families that have controlled large swaths of the city for a long time. It reaches way down deep into the political system, and it maintains itself. When you’re in power for so long, the downside of this autocracy is corruption and a system that begins to fail the people.”

Complexity is the devil’s handiwork.

Owing to historical factors, Illinois developed a labyrinthine governmental structure that offered fertile ground in which corruption could sprout. The Illinois constitution of 1870, in effect until 1970, limited the amount of debt counties and municipalities could carry and taxes they could levy. When cities needed to fund improvements, they got around those constraints by creating new units of government with the capacity to borrow—a library district, for example, would be created to build and administer a new library. “The 1870 constitution almost forced you into multiple units of government if you were going to deliver services beyond your municipality or modernize your municipality,” says Redfield. Today the state contains almost 7,000 separate governmental fiefs—far more than any other state—ranging from counties, towns, and school and fire districts to water reclamation and mosquito abatement districts. Most have budgets to protect and authority to wield. “It’s very hard to stay on top of it all, and it creates many more opportunities for patronage,” says Cindi Canary. “It creates ways for small islands of graft and corruption to stay hidden.” 

The target is soft.

Money seems to be at the root of almost every public corruption scandal that bursts into the news. And despite some minor tweaks to campaign finance and ethics laws, Illinois remains a place where campaign contributions can serve as legal graft and politicians still operate brazenly under troubling conflicts of interest. Despite the incremental ethics reforms, “we [still] have very, very weak to nonexistent disclosure and conflict-of-interest laws,” says Don Rose. And the resulting clouted contracts and conflicts of interest “would be called corruption by most definitions, except that it’s quite legal here,” he adds. Meanwhile, state and local prosecutors continue to lack important tools that their counterparts in most other states have, including the ability to deploy hidden listening devices in corruption investigations.

In short, the system allows wide latitude for misbehavior and misconduct with little threat of accountability. “If you’re a burglar and there’s a fancy house with its door wide open and nobody is around, it’s a lot easier [to rob it] than if there’s a security fence and bars on the window,” says Gary MacDougal. Think of Illinois as that vulnerable house—its doors ajar and no one keeping watch over the loot.

The hen house is guarded—by wolves.

Where are the public servants leading the charge to tighten this loose and leaky system? If such leaders exist, their voices are muffled. In Illinois, a handful of autocrats wield enormous power and brook little dissent. “States with strong political party organizations—like Illinois, New Jersey, and New York—have long resisted political reforms that would create transparency and limit the power of incumbents to get reelected,” says DePaul’s Steger.

When he wasn’t bulldozing Meigs Field, Mayor Daley was routinely steamrolling the Chicago City Council. And Mike Madigan, the longtime speaker of the Illinois House of Representatives, has exerted an iron grip on the state Democratic Party and legislative process. Under the state’s legislative rules, no bill can make it to the floor of the House without the speaker’s OK or to the floor of the Senate without approval from that chamber’s president. This centralized authority “enables party leaders to reward loyalists and penalize dissidents,” Steger says, adding that it also allows party leaders to “have a veto over any reforms that might weaken the party control over government.”

Scandal? What scandal?

When public corruption does get exposed—typically by investigative journalists or federal prosecutors—the response in Illinois tends to be tepid rather than aggressive. Several years ago, for example, Mike Tristano, then the chief of staff to the Illinois House Republican leader Lee Daniels, was indicted for illegally using legislative staffers for campaign work on the taxpayers’ dime. He wound up being sent to prison for a time, and that was the end of the episode. In Wisconsin, when a similar, albeit milder, scandal erupted involving the use of state resources for party leaders’ political activities, “the response of the Wisconsin legislature was to dramatically reduce the resources available to the legislative leaders—to really make an institutional change,” says Redfield. “In Illinois, we tend to get change when there’s scandal, but the negotiations aren’t about ‘How can we do the right thing?’ They’re about ‘What is the minimal response to make this thing go away?’”

You can’t fight the power.

OK, so the laws stink, and leaders regularly betray the public trust. Don’t the people themselves have a say? After all, when citizens in many other states don’t like a law, they can change it through a ballot initiative; and when people don’t like how their leaders are behaving, some states have a process for recall by voters.

Illinois does allow ballot initiatives, though the law is written so narrowly that “it’s very hard for citizens to exert control over the government,” says John Tillman, chief executive of the Illinois Policy Institute, a nonpartisan group that supports free-market principles. The same is true of recall efforts. On November 2nd, Illinois voters considered whether to amend the state constitution to allow for the recall of a governor. And though this magazine went to press before the results were known, the outcome hardly mattered—the amendment’s various requirements were so onerous that recall “wouldn’t actually work,” Tillman says. “It’s a great illustration of how they claim reform but it isn’t really reform.”

Incumbency is next to godliness.

Even if recall won’t work, don’t citizens still have the ultimate doomsday device for throwing the bums out—their vote on election day? Technically, yes, but the entrenched powers have tried valiantly to stifle competition and render that vote meaningless.

One way incumbents stack the odds in their favor is by designing legislative districts to produce the electoral results that they—not the voters—desire. Much ink has been spilled on the ludicrousness of Illinois’s redistricting process. If representatives from the two parties can’t agree on legislative boundaries when it’s time to redraw them, they resort to a “tie­­breaker”—pulling a name out of a hat to determine which party gets sole power to design the new map. Lawmakers from the winning side have not seemed terribly interested in promoting competitive races, employing cartographic artifice to create districts with grotesque bulges connected by narrow, snaking corridors—usually assuring the outcome of races before the first vote is cast. Under the current legislative map, drawn in 2001, 45 percent of House and Senate races have been uncontested (not including this year’s November 2nd elections), according to CHANGE Illinois!, a coalition advocating political reforms. And in contested races over the past ten years, incumbents have won 98 percent of the time.

The voters consent.

It’s easy to fault public servants and criticize unsound laws, but ultimately the local political culture “comes down to what the voters will put up with,” says James Merriner. Over the years, Illinois voters have shown themselves to be a tolerant lot, viewing corruption as the grease that helps get things done. “It’s worked well enough for most of the people,” says Cindi Canary. “It’s been seen as the price you pay for relatively efficient government.”

That attitude has prevailed for so long, “it’s gotten built into the DNA,” says Patrick Collins, chairman of the Illinois Reform Commission and a former assistant U.S. attorney who led the prosecution in the corruption trial of the former governor George Ryan (now in prison). “We don’t push back and fight, so we get what we get.” Public corruption in Illinois “has gone on for generations, and people don’t think anything about it,” says Larry Bennett. “So it becomes common practice, no longer subject to ethical scrutiny.”

Indeed, some people treat the crookedness of local politics as a badge of honor—a perverse form of Chicago (or Illinois) exceptionalism. “In a masochistic sort of way, we’re proud of it,” says Adlai Stevenson III.

The same media that expose corruption as a wrong also celebrate it as spectacle. Patrick Collins remembers one day when Rod Blagojevich appeared in court seeking permission to travel to Costa Rica to appear on a TV reality show. “There was a gaggle of media outside the courtroom—more so than I had seen for any George Ryan [court appearance],” he recalls. Around that same time, Collins says, he and other members of the Illinois Reform Commission went to Springfield to present the commission’s proposals for cleaning up government. “I don’t think we had one TV camera down there,” he says.

Collins laments what he calls “the Sopranoization of corruption,” referring to the TV series about a New Jersey mobster. “Tony Soprano is very entertaining, and I used to love watching The Sopranos. But I’d have to check myself: Wait—this guy just beat somebody with a baseball bat. . . . We love the character and colorfulness of some of our crooks. It makes this stuff fun and interesting.”

With round two of the Blagojevich trial approaching, Collins fears its effect on a weary and jaded public: “If anything, people will say, ‘They’re all crooks. I don’t want any part of these guys.’ There is a sense that you can’t beat city hall. There’s apathy, a checkout from the system, and that’s the part that concerns me most.”

 

Is it possible that we have finally had enough—that the political slapstick isn’t so amusing anymore? There’s certainly nothing funny about the cost of corruption. Dick Simpson estimates that the “corruption tax” borne by taxpayers in Chicago and Illinois comes to a staggering $500 million a year, based on estimates of the costs of major scandals and the inflation in the cost of government caused by all those redundant payrollers and juicy contracts given to political cronies and campaign contributors.

There’s no shortage of ideas and proposals on ways to make state and local government more ethical, accountable, and transparent. All that’s missing is a mandate from the people to make it happen. Even then, reform wouldn’t come easily—or quickly. Simpson estimates the process could take 10 to 20 years.

But Don Rose sees glimmers that at least suggest conditions are ripening. For one thing, he says, race has ceased to be the major factor in city politics that it was when Daley was first elected. “There’s no counterforce to a citizen movement for reform the way race was for much of the last century,” he says. “When you remove race from the bargain, there’s a lot clearer thinking, and people begin to understand the corruption tax.”

As racial tensions have eased, voter anger has risen—witness Daley’s plunging approval ratings in Chicago, to a lowly 35 percent after his parking meter fiasco. That anger, Rose says, “might not have translated into an election defeat [if Daley had run for office again] next year, but it said that people were fed up. Who knows what we’re going to see if we get a different kind of city council and a different kind of mayor? I’m not saying at the moment that things are getting better. But things can get better. I see more hope now than I would have ten years ago.”

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