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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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.”

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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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