CHICAGO – Tainted by the dark cloud hovering over lawmakers here after the recent impeachment of former Governor Rod Blagojevich who allegedly tried to sell President Obama’s former U.S. Senate seat, many wonder if Illinois is the most corrupt state in the country.

On the other hand others view the current situation as a short window of opportunity to not only examine the “culture of corruption” in city, county and state government but also as the moment to build a broad coalition of support for reform.

At a recent panel, “20 ways to stop corruption in Illinois,” speakers addressed the systemic problem of scandals that have been part of the state’s politics for a century and a half.

Carlos Hernandez Gomez, Chicagoland’s Television political reporter, moderated the event and said that although Illinois is modeled as the land of President Abraham Lincoln whose 200th birthday will be celebrated this month, the reality is that it has become the “land of the deal.”

‘“It’s just politics,’ is the saying,” said Gomez. Because of the impeachment of Balgojevich a new level of corruption and a culture of “pay-to-play” politics has risen to new heights, he added. Gomez recalled that five of the last eight Illinois governors have faced federal charges.

Dick Simpson, professor of political science at the University of Illinois at Chicago and former 44th Ward alderman, said 30 aldermen have gone to jail since 1970.

According to a report released by Simpson, “Curing Corruption in Illinois,” there have been three governors before Blagojevich, state legislators, two congressmen, 19 Cook County judges, and other statewide officials convicted of corruption since 1972. Altogether there have been 1,000 public officials and businessmen convicted since 1970.

In Simpson’s report machine politics and corruption have been directly linked ever since the late 1860s, following the civil war and the Great Chicago Fire. Corruption schemes began when Chicago’s large immigrant population settled in Chicago and had difficulties getting jobs. Millions of Irish, German, Jewish, and Slavic immigrants would visit local elected officials for housing and work, making public offices into the market for jobs, contracts, and a place to reward “friends.”

Such offers and transactions made it easy for the political machine to grow in power by responding to citizen demands and requesting political support in return. In many cases the machine continued to expand a system based on the politics of personal obligation. Businessmen also thrived on the system, paying bribes in order to get lucrative contracts from the city and avoid city inspectors. Eventually politics in the state followed Chicago’s pattern.

There are many different forms of fraud but they all come from the school of corruption, namely the history of machine politics survived and modernized by Mayor Richard J. Daley and now spearheaded, many feel, by his son Mayor Richard M. Daley.

Chicago’s current political machine, led by Democrats, has simply adjusted to draw much of its power from interest groups, corporations, unions, and the global economy, says Simpson’s report. At the heart of most convictions of aldermen in City Hall is a pattern of payoffs for a zoning change, a building permit, or some other license necessary to do business.

Although many aides of the present Mayor Daley have been convicted of corruption, neither father nor son has ever been indicted. Yet corruption continues unabated in city, county, suburban and state politics today.

The underlying problem is machine politics in both the city and state, said Simpson

“There is no silver bullet to end political corruption, but a comprehensive program needs to be passed,” noted Simpson. He added that a recent Joyce Foundation public opinion poll shows more than 60 percent of Illinois residents say corruption is one of their top concerns, even more than the economy or jobs. The poll indicates that more than 70 percent favor a number of specific reforms, including limits on campaign money lawmakers contribute to other legislative candidates.

“Its more than passing another law or getting another leader elected,” said Simpson. The problem is cultural, he said. Civics education should be taught in high school that instills there is a proper way to govern at the expense of corruption, he added.

Chicago City Clerk Miguel Del Valle and former state senator was the product of an independent political movement for progressive change during the early 1980s under Mayor Harold Washington’s historic administration. Del Valle was one of the speakers.

“These days you either have to be rich or mingle with the rich or come from a political family to run for office,” said Del Valle. What it comes down to is that you need a lot of money to run for office, he pointed out. So the question arises how do you raise that money and where does most of it come from, he asked.

Del Valle alluded to the fact that in politics there is a structure of power and money and in many cases money will influence the candidates voting record. “And there are always certain expectations,” he said.

One after another the panelists agreed that there is an opportunity right now to clean up politics as usual, including setting limits on campaign financing. Internal enforcement that is led by a comprehensive program to weed out the likelihood of improper deal making or the politics of “personal favors” is also required, said the panelists.

Overall limits and restrictions on the system of campaign fundraising including personal contributions to political entities should be enforced so that bribery-extortion schemes are eradicated. Imposing higher standards, proper ethics, transparency and good, clean, honest messages when running for public office should be imposed or encouraged, they said.

For Cindi Canary with the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, the main issue in ending corruption lies at the heart of fighting for social justice.

“Because in reality those who can’t afford the least get hurt the most,” said Canary.

“We need to make meaningful information readily available to millions of voters across the state,” noted Canary. “We need the pieces to be put together that will help us decide who really serves the best interests of the public.”

Canary said that voters and the public need to stay up to date on what’s happening in their communities and play a more active role in what decisions are being made on their behalf.

“We need to make some noise – some outrage and people need to speak out, share our ideas to make them hear us and demand that we want change to come,” said Canary.

Canary said everyday people should keep our eyes on the prize and the bigger vision for change. “In politics you’re never really done with democracy. It’s a full time job,” she said.

Recently Illinois Governor Pat Quinn appointed attorney Patrick Collins as chair of an ethics commission that will work to set concrete proposals in order to reform state politics.

Collins, a member of the panel, said a dialogue needs to occur that questions the attitude of those in public office, setting the tone for who should serve.

“Folks who do not want true reform will not change the debate, so we need people who will propose bold decisions that incorporates people from all parts of life,” said Collins.

“The time is now,” said Collins. “We need smart meaningful reform.”

For more detailed information about recent reports or proposals made by the panelists go to; Curing Corruption in Illinois: Anti-Corruption Report Number 1 – http://www.uic.edu/depts/pols/ChicagoPolitics/Anti-corruptionReport.pdf, The Illinois Campaign for Political Reform – www.ilcampaign.org and www.reformillinois.org.

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