Here we go again. Another corrupt Chicago politician hogging all the headlines. It seems like every time you open a newspaper (or surf the Internet) some columnist is snootily recounting Chicago’s colorful past as a Shangri-la of corruption and political intrigue, from Mayor Levi Boone’s 1855 Beer Riots to the zany antics of Gov. Rod Blagojevich. Manhattanites may be ardent arts and culture snobs, but no one appreciates a good political scandal like a Bears fan.
Just the other day Wall Street Journal readers were treated to the giddy recollections of Chicago native Scott Simon, who reminisced wistfully about the colorful history of Chicago politics. “Chicagoans and Illinoisans,” wrote Mr. Simon, “love political scandal the way that Milanese love opera.”
Speaking as a journalist who just happens to be a downstate Illinoisan, I’ll grant that political scandals are wonderful copy, perhaps even comedy gold. But as a disenfranchised citizen of a corrupt, one-party state ruled by Democratic party hacks (and I mean that in the best way possible) there is little to “love” in these continuous scandals.
Chicagoans, no doubt, will say us outsiders are simply jealous. We know better. First of all, the Windy City doesn’t have the monopoly on corrupt politicians. Though Chicagoans would be loath to acknowledge it, I’ll wager downstate Illinois is easily as crooked as The Second City. Indeed, federal investigations into corruption have a long and sustained history downstate. In recent years, FBI raids on a number of city halls in the metro-east (St. Clair and Madison counties, in particular) have led to the conviction of countless mayors, school board presidents and political party bosses, the chairman of the Republican Party in St. Clair County told one southern Illinois newspaper.
One of the more memorable convictions involved the charismatic slum preacher and erstwhile mayor of Alorton, Callie Mobley. Entering the village (usually to purchase crack), one was greeted by large billboards that read: “Welcome to The Village of Alorton, Where Jesus is Lord. Callie Mobley Mayor.” Mobley’s reign as mayor of Illinois’ poorest community ended in 2000 with her guilty plea for federal income tax evasion. During the mayor’s corruption trial it was revealed that she’d paid herself nearly a quarter of a million dollars in excess salary and forced village employees to perform extensive remodeling work on her home and rental properties.
Before Mobley there was the late Paul Powell, who hailed from the small coalmining town of Vienna. According to Powell’s biographer Robert E. Hartley, the former secretary of state never earned more than $30,000 a year, yet he left an estate worth more than $2 million — $800,000 of it in bills packed into shoe boxes, briefcases and strongboxes in the closet of his hotel suite in Springfield.
And who can forget George Ryan, the supposed corruption-fighting governor now serving six and a half years in prison? Ryan hailed from Kankakee, a city of 6,272 families best known as the hometown of actor Fred MacMurray and Little Orphan Annie creator Harold Gray. Ryan had few ties to Chicago politics, but still managed to “steer contracts worth millions of dollars to friends and took payments and vacations in return” then tried to cover his tracks by lying to the FBI. Seventy-nine former state officials, lobbyists and truck drivers were charged in the investigation, and at least 76 have been convicted.
But lest one should think Illinois’ legislative and executive branches hold a monopoly on corruption, consider the state’s judicial branch. Cook County Circuit Court judges are notorious for accepting bribes (18 county judges were convicted on corruption charges between 1987-1997) while the southern Illinois counties of Madison and St. Clair have long been known as two of the nation’s worst judicial hellholes (havens for plaintiffs lawyers and a horror for big business).
I COULD GO ON AND ON. But the point is Chicago is way too full of itself. Chicagoans like to imagine the rest of the state doesn’t exist, or exists only to provide them with sweet corn for their swank dinner parties and ethanol for their Hummers. Gov. Blagojevich certainly didn’t win any friends downstate when he refused to move from his beloved Chicago to the governor’s 16-room mansion in Springfield. Not that he cared. The fact is Blago was never much interested in what happened outside of Cook County. He only wanted to be Emperor of Chicagoland.
If there is a common theme running through these newspaper stories it is that Illinoisans have grown cynical and indifferent to political corruption. This is nonsense. Speaking for my fellow downstaters, we loathe corruption and scandal and would fain see the Blagojeviches and Ryans pilloried and pelted with rotten eggs on the steps of the state capitol. As for our alleged cynicism, we know what to expect from politicians, no matter whether they hail from Cicero or Cairo. Power corrupts, and it matters not whether one is mayor of Alorton or governor of Chicago. Errr, Illinois. Governor of Illinois.