This is getting embarrassing. I grew up in Illinois, and in my lifetime three governors from the Land of Lincoln have gone to prison and a fourth may be on his way.
Is there something in the water? The air? Or the culture?
Otto Kerner, a Democrat who served as governor from 1961 to 1968, was a patrician type and considered a model of rectitude. He resigned the governorship to become a federal judge and not just any federal judge, but a member of a U.S. court of appeals.
Lyndon Johnson had made him chairman of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders in July 1967 to find the cause of the riots that had broken out across America. Otto Kerner was a very big deal. He also took bribes in a racetrack scandal and went to prison. I interviewed him after he got out, and he was convinced that he never got a fair trial.
Dan Walker, also a Democrat, ran as a reformer. He ran against the Chicago Democratic machine and won, mainly by walking the length of state more than 1,000 miles and beating one of the most famous figures in Illinois politics (and a real reformer) Paul Simon in a shocking upset in the Democratic primary. Walker served as governor from 1973 to 1977, got in trouble after he left office and ended up serving18 months in a federal prison for bank fraud.
George Ryan, a Republican, served as governor from 1999 to 2003. Ryan is currently a guest of the taxpayers in the Federal Correctional Institution in Terra Haute, Ind., for corruption not just as governor, but for when he was Illinois secretary of state.
Ryan was succeeded by Rob Blagojevich, the current governor, and one would think that Blagojevich would at least be careful (if not actually honest) while in office. But Blagojevich was recently arrested and named in a 76-page criminal complaint on charges of conspiracy and soliciting bribes.
According to U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, Blagojevich was planning on filling the Senate seat being vacated by President-elect Obama with whomever gave Blagojevich the best deal in terms of campaign contributions, jobs, etc. Fitzgerald has wiretaps to support his case.
Blagojevich has only been charged, not convicted, but if his case gets to trial, he also is going to have to explain to a jury allegations that he threatened to withdraw money from a children's hospital unless the CEO of the hospital agreed to raise $50,000 for Blagojevich.
That's pretty low. Even for Illinois.
But why Illinois? Part of the problem, I think, is that there has always been a certain level of public tolerance for corruption in the state as long as things "worked." As long as the snow got plowed, the highways got built and no public buildings actually fell down, nobody much cared if a few dollars stuck to a few hands.
Public officials put their friends, their brothers-in-law, their spouses and their children on the public payroll? Well, that was just considered the cost of doing business. They shook people down for campaign contributions? Well, who really got hurt?
But the corruption spread and spread and became part of the culture, and when it reaches as high as the governor's office three times and possibly a fourth! and it reaches into the funding of hospitals for sick children, well, that is going too far.
There will be a public reaction. "Reform" candidates if they can be found will be at a premium in future elections.
Currently, however, Illinois is left with a mess. Blagojevich refuses to resign and is still the governor. Technically, he could fill Obama's seat at any time (though the U.S. Senate could refuse to seat his choice). Many want a special election to fill the seat, but that could cost around $50 million, and the state doesn't know where it will get the money.
But the biggest problem of all? Blagojevich could get sent to prison before his predecessor gets paroled.
Two Illinois governors in prison at the same time? Now that's embarrassing.