Updated: March 23, 2013 6:24AM
Reading the news in the Sun-Times over the last several days, I was struck by a minor personal revelation: Most of the people I know who have gone to prison have been . . . Illinois politicians.
What got me to thinking about this was, of course, the guilty pleas from former Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. and his wife, former Ald. Sandi Jackson, on charges growing out of the diversion of $750,000 in campaign funds for personal use ranging from buying Michael Jackson’s fedoras to shopping trips to Costco and Build-A-Bear.
That politicians loom large among the people I know who ended up in prison speaks, I suppose, to the reality that to some degree I’ve lived a sheltered, middle-class life among people who, whatever other failings they might have, mostly have never breached the boundaries of our legal system.
That’s not to say I’ve been entirely isolated from men who ended up wearing jailhouse fashions. Growing up in a small North Carolina town where people of all classes couldn’t help but rub elbows, I knew people who had run afoul of the law. I recall one of my high school buddies regaling us about the last time he saw good old so-and-so was him waving from the window of the county jail bus.
A lawyer who once sold me a house some years later was convicted of fraud. Most notably, two former owners of the Sun-Times landed in federal prison for financial misdeeds in their stewardship of their newspaper empire. And naturally, a half century in journalism brought me in contact with any number of criminals with records. But I met those folks after they had served time.
When I start thinking about the people I knew or met thanks to my career who subsequently ended up behind prison walls, the largest number fall into the category of Illinois politicians, their staff and aides.
Let me say that I don’t share today’s fashionable contempt for politicians. I generally like them as a class of people, even ones whose politics I don’t share. Yes, they tend to have big egos, too often project a familiarity that rings false and are tireless self-promoters. Still, I think most, though certainly far from all of them, got into public service with the intention of doing some good. And it takes a lot of guts to put yourself before the public and say “love me.” Virtually all of them experience the humiliation of rejection. Even charismatic Barack Obama suffered the sting of that indignity when he tried to unseat Rep. Bobby Rush in 2000.
I saw Jesse Jackson Jr. as promising pol. He was brainy, personable and dedicated to improving the lot of the people he served, perhaps best exemplified by his drive to build a third airport in the south suburbs to bring to his constituents an O’Hare prosperity. But like nearly all children of powerful fathers, he could exhibit an air of entitlement, never more so than in the hunt to get then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich to appoint him to the U.S. Senate seat vacated by President Obama. While Jackson emerged from the Blagojevich scandal to sell that seat without the taint of a criminal charge, it opened the South Side legislator to ethical scrutiny that led to his troubles today.
So, how is it that most of the convicts and ex-cons I’ve known have been pols? Political scientist and former alderman Dick Simpson studies public corruption and has an answer. He finds Illinois to be the third most corrupt state in the country — since the 1970s there have been four governors imprisoned and 1,828 public-corruption convictions. It’s hard to avoid them.