The Common Good

Blagojevich, Illinois' Corruption, and the Reformers Who've Fought It

Somebody had to say it, and they came from Hyde Park.

It was open knowledge among people in and around Springfield. Legislators and lobbyists alike openly talked about the fact that the governor would want to appoint somebody who would benefit him.

Illinois State Senator Kwame Raoul said in The New York Times today what anybody with personal experience in Illinois politics was thinking. His words made a decided break from the opening lines of the front page coverage on Blagojevich yesterday:

Little in Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich's background prepared the people of Illinois for the man who was revealed in the criminal complaint that dropped like a bombshell here on Tuesday. Delusional, narcissistic, vengeful and profane, Mr. Blagojevich as portrayed by federal prosecutors shocked even his most ardent detractors.

Before coming to Sojourners I spent two years as a community organizer and campaign consultant in Chicago. My relatively brief tenure there hardly makes me a Springfield insider, but you don't need to be one to hear the stories of corruption and see a few of the deeds yourself. A couple of drinks after hours in a bar by the State House and you'll learn all you need to know. An FBI investigator was quoted yesterday as saying, "I can tell you one thing: If (Illinois) isn't the most corrupt state in the United States, it's certainly one hell of a competitor." I'm pretty sure he's right.

If found guilty, Blagojevich will be the fourth (Kerner, Walker, and Ryan before him) of the state's last eight governors to be convicted on corruption charges or white collar crime. Depending on how you count, in the same time period about one third of Chicago aldermen have been arrested on various charges. To add on to the general corruption, Illinois government has been in virtual gridlock over the past few years while the Democratic leadership that controlled the House, Senate, and the Governor's office fought with each other.

That, however, is not the whole picture of Illinois politics. While they have never managed to arrest power from the establishment, there is a small tradition of political independents who have taken on the corrupt system directly. By speaking out, Raoul, who inherited Obama's state Senate seat, gives reason to hope that he will carry on a Hyde Park tradition of rough and tumble independent politics inaugurated by Alderman Leon Despres.

Despres fought for years in Chicago's City Council against corrupt Machine politics. His memoir Challenging the Daley Machine is a testament to its power. When I met with him last year and at the age of 99, he still had some fire, and at the age of 100 he is still writing! He stood alone, for a long time the only alderman to introduce civil rights legislation, and would consistently have his microphone shut off by the mayor during council meetings.

Alderman Toni Preckwinkle now leads the independent Hyde Park charge against corruption and political cronyism. After losing twice for a seat in her ward, she built an independent political organization that not only fights the Machine, it wins concessions too. Preckwinkle was one of Obama's first political patrons, and her support can make or break a politician in that neighborhood.

From his short tenure in the Illinois Senate and his words today in the Times, it looks like Raoul will be carrying on this fight.

Obama cut his teeth in this independent political tradition that targeted corruption. He made some starts at carrying this into Congress by his work to pass "sunshine" legislation, but raised some eyebrows by refusing public financing for his campaign. The national outrage over Blagojevich sends an overwhelming mandate to our President-elect: Corruption is a bipartisan problem, and it's time to clean it up.

In case the Democrats need any motivation, I would be remiss not to mention that Louisiana, a state that has the reputation for being just as corrupt as Illinois, ousted Democratic Congressman William J. Jefferson who has been under indictment on corruption charges for several years now. He was replaced by America's first Vietnamese-American Congressman, Anh Cao, in an upset win.

Tim King is the special assistant to the CEO for Sojourners.

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