Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Blago's Downfall: Don't Act Surprised

Just don't.

Not even if you don't care about politics in Illinois or anywhere else.

Nobody was shocked when they read this news yesterday.

Well, I can think of one resident of the northwest side of Chicago who might have been a *little* surprised.

This story is still developing, naturally. There is much to be said, though.

The Facts (Or Something Like Them) Let's get the facts (whatever the hell those are apart from the official complaint) out of the way first.

Blago was involved in a multi-year campaign of graft, kick-backs and pay-to-play politics. He won re-election in 2006 in a strong Democratic year versus ineffective Republican opposition by making the other side look worse than himself. Things started to get hairy for Blago more recently with the trial of political operative, fundraiser and fellow scumbag Tony Rezko. Read all about that here. Blago's name just kept coming up over and over again as using people like Rezko as his shake-down men for campaign contributions.

Rezko was not the entire story, though. In the most recent set of allegations, backed up by wiretaps of Blago and his flunkies, he continued his cash operation seeking money from people involved in a $1.8 billion dollar tollway deal. He offered $8 million in funding to Children's Memorial Hospital while seeking a $50,000 contribution from the president of that hospital. He diverted horse racing revenues into his coffers. Read more (if you are not pissed off enough) in the statement by federal prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald here.

Most explosively, though, he seemed to offer the now-vacant U.S. Senate seat of now-President Elect Obama to whoever was willing to cough up the most money. Read about that here and the person who was supposedly willing to pony up here. Of course they all deny it. Never believe anything until it is officially denied.

Nobody should have been shocked because of the people involved and the political culture from which they emerged. Illinois state politics have been mired in sleaze for decades and this is just the latest chapter. Much has been written over the last day and a half about just why this is.

A Bit of Illinois Political History (Stick With It Here, Folks) Let me give it a go. We have a history in the last sixty years of corruption in Springfield and in Chicago that often feed each other. Three Illinois governors since 1945 have been convicted and sentenced to jail (those being Otto Kerner, Dan Walker, and most recently George Ryan). Chicago's corruption scandals are too numerous to mention here, but take a look at Operation Silver Shovel to get an idea of the more recent brand of Chicago corruption. Believe me, it goes back to the very beginning in the nineteenth century.

Why did this political culture develop in a place like Illinois? Well, I will make two main suggestions. First, look at the demographics in Illinois. Take a gander at this population density map of Illinois and I think you will immediately get what I am about to say. There is one part of the state that has always (and will always) have disproportionate influence and it ain't Peoria, Carbondale, East Saint Louis or even Springfield.

This means, to me, that the brand of politics that are the order of the day in Chicago will be the way that the state largely works. Also to be considered with this first point is the fact that there has often been tension between Chicago and Springfield. To soften this tension and get the wheels of government moving, certain things have happened in the past (and I ain't talking about having a nice chat over tea). To put it in the words of an old Chicago ward heeler, "I like a guy who takes always know where you stand."

What are the roots of this culture in Chicago? Well, you need look no further than the city's immigrant past. Waves of immigrants passed through and settled in Chicago beginning in the middle of the nineteenth century. They didn't always have access to the channels of power in the city because of poverty, bigotry, illiteracy and other factors that were common to immigrants from Europe to nineteenth century America.

They didn't stand for this situation for long. They began to organize in their neighborhoods and tie themselves to certain politicians who promised to help them in exchange for, ahem, some consideration. It also worked the other way, the politicos plying the masses with booze, food, women (remember only men could vote in most places until 1920) and all manner of vice to get their votes. It was through this cycle of pay-to-play politics (sound familiar, Blago?) that the city's political culture was born and raised. It gave rise to Carter Harrison, "Big" Bill Thompson, Anton Cermak, Richard J. Daley, Richard M. Daley and, yes, Blago.

Why did these immigrants do what they did? Mainly, well, because they had to. More speculatively, though, I have always wondered about the connection to politics in their countries of origin and how that played out on the streets of Chicago. Most came from non-democratic states where governments ranged from democracy-for-some and outright feudalism. These people, coming from such places, were already skilled at circumventing the system. They did it in (Poland, Ireland, Bavaria, Italy and a dozen other places). Why not do it here too?

How Do You Solve A Problem Like Blago? So, what happens next? The biggest concern seems to be who will choose Barack Obama's successor as Illinois's junior senator. Attorney General Lisa Madigan (who just happens to be the daughter of Illinois General Assembly Speaker Michael Madigan) seems to think that there is a constitutional provision to strip the governor of his power.

While this might (or might not) solve the problem of who should pick Obama's successor, there is still the larger problem of what to do with the Scumbag-in-Chief of the Land of Lincoln (who should be rolling over in his grave, apparently). There is a forced resignation, there is impeachment, there is perhaps state troopers who are a good shot who could keep their mouths shut. I am kidding on that last one. A little bit, anyway.

What will hopefull happen is that he will resign soon, handing power over to Lieutenant Governor Patrick Quinn. Quinn is not THAT corrupt and could be trusted to take advice in appointing a successor for Obama and carrying on the business of state government. Hell, all Blago did was find ways to feather his nest, so it couldn't be that hard. Then he should sit somewhere uncomfortable while his greedy, corrupt, profane, sullied, disgraced ass is dragged over the coals in Springfield during an impeachment trial.

The only problem there is how many of the denizens of the state capitol would have to recuse themselves for, ahem, conflicts of interest.

We shall see what Blago's fate is and if this has any long-term effect on the political culture of Illinois...or we can see this all happen again when the next group of lunatics gets to run the asylum.

I shudder at the answers to those questions.


the iNDefatigable mjenks said...

"We shall see what Blago's fate is and if this has any long-term effect on the political culture of Illinois"

With his ties to Rezko, coming from Illinois, and being at least somewhat tied into the political machine from Chicago, I think this whole thing will range further than just the Prairie State, my friend. Obama (who has already been distancing himself from Blago as fast and and furiously as possible) could very well be caught up in all of this, I suspect.

Question for you: Was Al Capone and the other "gangsters" of Chicago a product of the corrupt political machine there, or did they help build it up?

Will Shannon said...

Capone, Moran and the other people involved in the Chicago Outfit of the Prohibition era have an interesting relationship to the politics of Chicago.

The mayor in those years, "Big" Bill Thompson, was an ardent anti-Prohibitionist and the last Republican mayor that Chicago ever had.

His police department was rife with corruption, as was depicted somewhat accurately in the movie "The Untouchables."

He certainly didn't strictly enforce the Volstead Act (the enabling act for the Eighteenth Amendment). He once famously said, "I am as wet as the Atlantic Ocean! Not only will we re-open all the joints that they closed, we will open a thousand new ones!"

So, it seems that the criminal element in Chicago was (and in certain smaller ways, still is) in an unspoken quid-pro-quo with the city government.

the iNDefatigable mjenks said...

Here's an amusing take on the situation.