Saturday, February 6, 2010

At some point, a pattern emerges

Before you read this post, you should head over to the unparalleled Capitol Fax blog to understand what I'm referring to. If you can't bring yourself to read the last several days of posts (and if you're reading this blog, you're probably the kind of person who would love every one of them, but whatever) then just check this one out. And if even this is too much effort for you, then just know that Illinois Democrats, in last Tuesday's primary, nominated for Lieutenant Governor a man named Scott Lee Cohen, a pawnbroker from the Chicago suburbs who, um...allegedly attacked his prostitute ex-girlfriend with a knife, injected anabolic steroids, is behind on child support payments to his ex-wife, and has a long history of violence and harassment towards women.

Pretty vile stuff, and the Democratic nominees for Governor, Comptroller and Attorney General (my old boss!) have all distanced themselves from Cohen, more or less calling for him to get off the ticket. It looks like he might do just that, although he argues that he disclosed all of this months ago, and indeed he did.

But we've been down this road before. They're still filing new charges against our last governor, Rod Blagojevich, who among other crimes attempted to extort a bribe in return for appointing someone to fill Barack Obama's Senate seat. The governor before Blagojevich, George Ryan, is currently in jail following his conviction for corruption (he profited from the sale of drivers licenses while Secretary of State). Before Ryan, then-former Governor Dan Walker was convicted in an S&L scandal in the 80s. And before Walker, Otto Kerner, another former Governor, was convicted of accepting bribes as a federal judge in the 70s. In other words, since 1961, Illinois has had 9 governors, counting the current one. 4 have been convicted, or will soon be convicted, of federal crimes. Not to mention the other 76 elected officials in Illinois, Cook County or Chicago who were convicted between 1972 and 2006.

So there's clearly a pattern here. The question is, why does Illinois persist in electing criminals? The answer isn't just the state's peculiar political culture; while it's true that we take a joking pride in our track record, typically these scandals end the careers of their subjects. So once we know they're dirty, we don't often elect them.

You could argue that there are always whispers surrounding these politicians while they're actually running for office, before the convictions come, and that voters knowingly elect them. But the voters of Illinois don't typically hear those whispers, confined as they usually are to a tiny political class (perhaps a larger one than in comparable states, but still tiny relative to the state's population and voter base.)

And it's not just the case that corruption breeds corruption. Certainly that plays a role, especially at the Chicago City Council level. But statewide? Blagojevich probably didn't learn to be as dirty as he is (though he's the son-in-law of a powerful Chicago alderman, I don't think Dick Mell taught him to be this brazen). I don't think Ryan did either, and I don't know much about Walker or Kerner, but I don't think a "culture of corruption" explains them either.

Honestly, and I know this is a lame answer: I think it's bad luck. The City Council is a different story - it once was a filthy cesspool where the only way to get ahead was to play a certain game run by people too powerful to worry about getting caught - but I just don't see that much that connects our four felonious governors. And political scandal is hardly unique to Illinois: Louisiana, New York, New Jersey and Michigan all come immediately to mind, though we may well be the worst. But, recent events notwithstanding, it's hard to see our run continuing - it's getting harder and harder to get away with corruption in high-level American politics, as too many people are paying attention, and information is more freely available than ever before. And the Cohen debacle is just going to mean that the press will be even more hungry for any morsel of scandal going forward; no more long-shot Lite Gov candidates will be able to sneak under the radar with such easily-discoverable notoriety.

And even though that's probably a good thing, it does make me a little sad. There's something romantic about corruption on the scale Illinois has endured over the decades.


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