Ah, what a gift the media give us to see ourselves as others see us. With President-elect Barack Obama's victory, Chicago was portrayed as a world-class model of political enlightenment. Then our governor got arrested.
Among other outrages, Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich was arrested for allegedly putting Obama's Senate seat up for auction and a new debate was launched: Is the Land of Lincoln the country's most corrupt state? Or is it merely more colorfully corrupt than, say, New Jersey or Louisiana?
Using newly released Justice Department figures, USA Today determined that Illinois is not, in fact, the nation's most corrupt place by a long shot. Who is? The newspaper awards that distinction to wait for it! North Dakota.
North Dakota? As we might say in my old Chicago neighborhood, hey, c'mon! That hardly seems fair. Look at the size of that state. Five Twin Buttes school board members were convicted of abusing travel money two years ago, for example, and you'd think they had a crime wave.
Using Justice Department data, USA Today compared federal corruption convictions since 1998 to state population. North Dakota had 8.3 per 100,000. Illinois had a mere 3.9. But Illinois has a much larger population (12.9 million) than North Dakota (639,715). By their count, Illinois slides down or, depending on how you look at it, rises up to 18th place.
The New York Times differs. It counted the number of guilty public officials over the past decade and found Florida beat everyone else with 824. Illinois came in seventh with a mere a mere! 502.
As a proud Illinoisan, I demand a recount. As a political journalist who has spent most of my career in the Land of Lincoln, I suppose that a part of me takes perverse pride in Illinois corruption in the way that a big game hunter supports wildlife preservation. If you're trying to ferret out big stories of bribes, favoritism and other skullduggery, it's nice to think that you are going after the worst of the lot, not the 18th worst.
"We certainly have a right to the title of most corrupt state," says political science Prof. Dick Simpson of the University of Illinois in Chicago and my former alderman in Chicago's 44th Ward. "Certainly more than North Dakota, which has more cows than people."
Since 1971, by his count, Illinois has had 1,000 elected officials, city workers, lawyers or businesspeople convicted of serious public corruption charges.
Is Illinois only a hotbed of crooks? Hardly. The "Land of Lincoln" has had notable statesmen, including Abraham Lincoln himself. Others include Sen. Paul Douglas, Gov. Adlai Stevenson and Sen. Paul Simon. However, unlike New York and similar industrial cities, Chicago hasn't had many reform-minded mayors over the past century. Harold Washington was a notable exception, but died in office before he could enact much of his reform agenda.
Some national media reporters and commentators have raised questions or dropped hints that Obama might be a product of corrupt "Chicago politics." Political life in Chicago is more complicated and interesting than that. "Obama basically comes out of the reform wing," says Simpson, who comes from that same wing. "He passed the most stringent ethics law in Illinois history in the state Senate." Obama fought the machine in his early days, later made alliances with people like Mayor Daley. Yet Obama has carefully maintained his distance from the more questionable avenues of Illinois' political power.
What makes some cities or states more corrupt than others? Simpson answered with two words: machine politics. "Whenever you have people trading jobs and money for votes, you build up a pattern" until "the average precinct captain can't tell difference between the questionable ethics that George Washington Plunkett (of New York's old Tammany Hall machine) called 'honest graft' and the illegal 'dishonest' kind."
Most other cities got rid of their big political "machine" organizations with their armies of loyal precinct captains in public jobs. Some cities built modern versions of the old machine politics, fueled by big donations from wealthy contractors who, in turn, create jobs through their businesses.
Blagojevich is alleged to have run into trouble in those gray areas of favoritism and abuses of power. Judging by the wiretapped conversations that U.S. Atty. Patrick Fitzgerald quoted, the governor viewed his public trust, including the ability to name Obama's successor, as a pot of gold to be turned into personal or political profit.
At its heart, the culture of corruption begins when you treat politics not as a public interest, as we are taught in civics classes, but as just a job, just a business or just a cynical cat-and-mouse game of winners and losers, more fun for us to watch than to clean up.