Corruption takes a hit as voters raise expectations
BY MARK BROWN January 30, 2013 9:26PM
Former Illinois Governor Jim Thompson and attorney for George Ryan talks about Ryan after he was released from federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana and entered a half way house on Ashland and Monroe streets in Chicago early Wednesday January 30, 2013. | Tom Cruze~Sun-Times
Updated: March 2, 2013 11:50AM
Former Gov. George Ryan came home from prison Wednesday to an Illinois that I would argue is less politically corrupt than the one he last governed 10 years ago.
I’m talking about incremental as opposed to fundamental improvement. Our culture of corruption is too deeply entrenched to be erased in two decades let alone one.
Yet if you step back and survey the current political landscape, there are hopeful signs amid the constant causes for concern.
The most important change is that Illinois voters have raised their expectations about the ethical standards of those they elect. To the extent we’ve seen improvements, that’s where the credit belongs.
I say that despite the fact voters on the West Side recently chose to return Rep. Derrick Smith to the state Legislature with a federal corruption trial awaiting him. That was disappointing.
But in all of the key high-profile offices, voters have been gradually making upgrades.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel runs a cleaner shop than did Rich Daley, as best I can tell.
Gov. Pat Quinn is a definite improvement over Ryan and Rod Blagojevich when it comes to operating an honest state government.
And at Cook County, Board President Toni Preckwinkle has shown herself to be more interested in conducting an ethical operation than were the Strogers.
Part of what sets those offices apart is that there is more and better information available to the public. The stakes are higher, and voters have responded accordingly. Farther down the ballot, where both information and choices are more limited, it’s still pretty much hit or miss.
I don’t want to be naive.
People are people, and politics is corrupting by its nature.
The hubris of self-styled reformers who believe that anything they do is by definition beyond reproach can be as much a threat to honest government as the wink-and-a-nod boodlers who once were the norm.
As a wise if cynical colleague cautioned, just because we haven’t discovered corruption in the current administrations doesn’t mean it’s not there.
Corrupting influences remain deeply rooted in the bureaucracies and in the various branches of government beyond the good intentions of any one elected chief executive.
The current lineup of those awaiting trial at 219 S. Dearborn is hardly different from the defendants with which Ryan would have been familiar before he went away to prison — an assortment of current or former aldermen, county commissioners and legislators, along with lower-level patronage employees, all accused of abusing their positions in some manner.
Certainly, the fundamentals are still the same. Politics in Illinois remains an economic spoils system as much as a competition of philosophies.
Accordingly, the intersection of money in politics in the form of campaign contributions remains a corrupting force that will continue to cause many of our problems—just as it did for Ryan and Blagojevich.
In addition, last year’s round of redistricting once again allowed state and local lawmakers to choose their constituents instead of the other way around — all for the purpose of maintaining those in power.
At the local level, politics remains a hustle for too many of its participants.
The Illinois General Assembly, Chicago City Council and Cook County Board of Commissioners remain stacked with powerful players for whom ethics is a game in which the rules are drawn to provide cover as much as set limits.
Elected officials carrying law licenses remain among the ones most worthy of suspicion. Changes at the top have done little to undercut the power of these big dogs.
It occurs to me I’ve done a better job here of making the case that corruption still reigns than that anything has improved.
Like I say, we’re talking small improvements, not major ones. For the trend to continue, it will be up to the voters to keep paying attention and make more smart choices.
Who knows, by the time Blagojevich gets out of prison, he might not even recognize the place.