The brazen corruption of Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich is deplorable. But some would ask: what’s the big deal? Corruption is rampant in U.S. politics and is “as American as apple pie.”
The larger issue, then, is the unregulated corporate money that has corrupted politics generally in the state government, and that gave rise to the “pay to play” system. Without a change in that system there will be more George Ryans (the previous Illinois governor now in prison) and Blagojeviches.
That system is one of unregulated campaign finances, in which those seeking state contracts or jobs (the pay to play) are able to contribute without restriction. Illinois is one of only six states — along with Missouri, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah and Virginia — that has no limits on contributions. Nearly all states and the District of Columbia impose some restrictions on the size of campaign contributions, and most ban direct giving.
Some here have tended to focus on the large contributions of a few unions. But the overwhelming source of money given to Blagojevich has been private corporations and wealthy individuals.
Blagojevich, a former congressman, was first elected governor in 2002 and then re-elected in 2006. Over eight years beginning in 2000, he raised $58 million in campaign money — the most ever by a candidate for governor. At one time it was standard to receive individual contributions of $2,500. But the money rolling in now is dwarfing that.
The Chicago Tribune reported that of 235 contributions of $25,000 each received by Blagojevich, 75 percent came from people or organizations that had received favors from him, such as contracts, board appointments, favorable policy positions and regulatory actions.
The Chicago Sun-Times reported that 20 companies gave Blagojevich a combined $925,500. These firms were paid by or had contracts with state government totaling $365 million.
In testimony before the Illinois House Special Investigative Committee looking into the matter, Cindi Canary, director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, noted that, “Illinois places no limits on the size of campaign contributions and no restrictions on the transfer of money between committees.”
“Instead of limits and restrictions, Illinois requires only disclosure,” she said. “If a public official wants to leverage governmental authority to generate campaign contributions or if a private party wants to use campaign contributions to influence a public official, Illinois’ campaign finance law does nothing to prevent attempts at corruption.”
Her organization supports a state measure, HB 3497, introduced by Reps. Harry Osterman and Elizabeth Coulson, which would create a system of limits for all candidates, parties and PACs for all state and local offices in Illinois.
An amended ethics law is now in effect to curb “pay-to-play” deals. While limited and not without loopholes, the law prohibits contractors that do more than $50,000 in business with the state from giving money to state officers who oversee their bids or contracts. It doesn’t affect union contributions.
After Blagojevich vetoed this measure last fall, Barack Obama strongly urged state Senate President Emil Jones to support an override of the veto. The state Senate voted to override in September. There is strong speculation that Blagojevich had been rushing to collect large donations before the law went into effect on Jan. 1, and that the “auctioning” of the U.S. Senate seat was part of that effort.
Ultimately what’s needed is a system of public financing of all elections — from federal to state to local.
John Bachtell (firstname.lastname@example.org) is district organizer of the Communist Party in Illinois.