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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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.” 

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