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Cindi Canary a true heroine in battle vs. corruption

Cindi Canary

Cindi Canary

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Updated: July 7, 2011 1:58PM

Though they come from entirely different political planets, just a dozen Chicago blocks separated Rod Blagojevich and Cindi Canary late last week.

She spent Thursday and Friday packing up her River North office as director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform while he sat in a witness box at the Dirksen Federal Building unpacking his whole life story before a jury that will decide his fate.

Canary founded the group on the cusp of George Ryan’s becoming the governor in 1998. Ryan won that election despite the cloud of corruption already darkening his horizon. Licenses for bribes dating back to his Secretary of State days. And pay-to-play state contracts to campaign contributors.

“There was no response legislatively,” Canary said.

Though heaven knows she tried to get lawmakers to react back then.

Ryan was replaced by Rod, running on a platform of reform. Irony is too weak a word for it.

Canary campaigned relentlessly for political contribution limits. And for an end to state contractors giving cash to the politicians who controlled the contracts. And she had many conversations with Blagojevich over the years about all of that.

“Up until the day of his arrest, he had me on a working group which met every Wednesday on reform — it was farcical,” she said.

What was the former governor like in those meetings?

“Odd, Elvis-like,” Canary said. “Friendly and charming one moment, threatening the next. He 100 percent did not understand why I was pushing for the legislation that I was and why I didn’t think his version of reform was meaningful.”

Blagojevich’s idea of reform was the bigger the check, the better. He raised a mind-boggling $53,426,130 from 2002 to 2008, some in five- and six-figure amounts.

And, as we’ve heard in court, he was racing the clock before his arrest to amass as much money as he could before new legislation kicked in to cramp his style.

On Friday, Blagojevich was questioned by one of his attorneys, Aaron Goldstein, about whether he held up signing a bill beneficial to racetracks until a racetrack owner made good on a $100,000 campaign contribution promise.

“One,” said the former governor solemnly, was “not conditioned on the other.”

He wanted always, he testified, “to follow the law.” When the law is weak, it’s always easier to play on the edges.

Canary is one of the genuine heroines of reform in this state. A clanging bell for change — but always with humility and a sense of humor. It has been frustrating, maddening and dispiriting work. But she has won enough battles to earn her the enmity of more than a few power brokers in Springfield. You can guess their names.

The Illinois Campaign for Political Reform will carry on, a small, dedicated and very smart bunch of professionals.

Canary will move on, on the hunt for new and different waves to make. And she’ll find them.

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