When former governor of Illinois Rod Blagojevich was sentenced yesterday on 18 counts of corruption, his attorney, wife and supporters said he had done nothing to warrant 14 years in jail. Yet Blagojevich got just that, an unusually harsh punishment intended to send a signal to the state of Illinois, which has been racked by corrupt politicians for decades.
So corrupt, in fact, that in the past four decades, four Illinois governors have gone to prison. That’s four out of the past nine governors in office. Two more governors who were charged with crimes were later acquitted.
So why did Blagojevich’s audio tapes, many in which the former governor spoke vaguely, (“if, in fact, this is possible, then some of this stuff has to start happening now,” referring to the campaign contributions) get him in such hot water? Why is Illinois being tough now?
Illinois’s governor problem has always stemmed from Chicago. It’s a city widely recognized as still clinging to the corrupt Democratic machine of old, which revolved around Mayor Richard J. Daley (D). (His son, Richard M. Daley (D), was just replaced as mayor by Democratic former White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel.)
An old joke goes that former president John F. Kennedy, former president Lyndon Johnson, and former Chicago mayor Richard J. Daley are stuck on a one-person life raft that is sinking, and they have a secret ballot to decide who should stay. When the ballot box is opened, there’s one vote for Kennedy, one vote for Johnson, and 5,475 for Daley.
Slate explains that corruption has for so long persisted in Chicago in part because it had never had a reformist mayor (such as New York City’s Fiorello LaGuardia), because its politicians, like Daley, are near-celebrities, and because politicians (also Daley) were skilled at playing the different immigrant populations against each other.
But through it all, the city — and state — prospered, so there was no real call for change.
Blagojevich, on the other hand, didn’t make the state prosper. Under his leadership, Illinois’s state budget became a mess, ending the last fiscal year in July with “$8.3 billion in unpaid bills and other obligations, including $850 million owed in corporate tax refunds, $750 million needed to repay interfund borrowing, and $1.2 billion for state employee health insurance,” Reuters reports.
When the Illinois House of Representatives voted by a 114–1 vote to impeach Blagojevich, it was the first time such an action has been taken against a governor of Illinois. And he was impeached for “corruption and misconduct,” much of that having to do with the mess the state was in.
Although past governors were corrupt, “the tale of [Blagojevich’s] stunning fall departs sharply from those of crooked past governors... who succumbed to greed,” the Chicago Tribune wrote in July. The tale is sharply different, the Tribune writes, because Blagojevich wasn’t just corrupt — he was also incompetent.
But his sentencing yesterday shows that things may be changing for Illinois. The current governor, Patrick Quinn, has spent much of his career as a reformer and is widely seen as an “honest man.” In 2010, voters amended the Illinois Constitution to implement a system in which voters can recall the governor. U.S. Attorney Pat Fitzgerald said yesterday that it has become clear the public “had enough.”
“To put it very simply, we do not want to be back here again,” Fitzgerald said.