[Richard Painter, guest-blogging, March 24, 2009 at 1:51pm] Trackbacks
Ethics in Illinois:

I spent years listening to criticisms – some fair, but many unfair – of President Bush and members of his Administration. I was particularly troubled when government ethics was used as a political weapon instead of seen as a problem that both parties need to address (see page 267 of my book, Is Partisanship an Obstacle to Ethics Reform?). I do not agree with some of President Obama’s policies (I worry that the dramatic expansion of government will create many problems for our Country including problems with government ethics). I strongly object, however, to using ethics as a political weapon against the President in circumstances where it is not justified.

I am still looking for convincing evidence that the President can be blamed for corruption of Chicago politicians. I don’t see it. To the contrary, the President appears to have jumped ahead of many other Illinois Democrats because he was perceived to be both honest and intelligent, and voters wanted a change.

Both political parties in Illinois are to blame. Illinois may soon become the first state with two governors, one Republican and one Democrat, who serve their terms concurrently. Terms of incarceration that is. Governors Ryan and Blagojevich, if he is convicted, should consider sharing a cell; they can talk politics and perhaps learn more about bipartisanship. A Governor’s Wing in an Illinois federal prison might also be appropriate because unless things change there will be future inmates with a similar pedigree.

I know something about Illinois politics because I lived there not only as a law professor in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s but also as a teenager in the 1970’s, when Dan Walker (D) was Governor. Governor Walker later upheld an Illinois tradition by serving 18 months in prison for bank fraud.

Illinois, however, should be proud of a long line of politicians who rose to prominence despite corruption in the political parties that supported them. Adlai Stevenson, Adlai Stevenson III., Charles Percy, Paul Simon, Peter Fitzgerald, and many other names come to mind. The evidence suggests strongly that President Obama fits within this category.

Indeed, in 2004 it was corruption in the Illinois Republican Party, not the Democratic Party, that did the most for then State Senator Obama’s career. Peter Fitzgerald, a first term Republican, held the U.S. Senate Seat, which he had won from Carol Moseley Braun. I got to know Senator Fitzgerald while I was teaching at the University of Illinois. He was a fine Senator, but he did not always do what made him popular.

Fitzgerald had jumped in line ahead of Republican machine politicians and in office he stood up to them. He insisted that the Lincoln Library at the University of Illinois not be used for political patronage by Governor Ryan. With a bribery scandal brewing in the Governor’s office, Senator Fitzgerald asked President Bush to appoint a United States Attorney who would prosecute Republicans as well as Democrats for political corruption (Patrick Fitzgerald, who is no relation to the Senator, got the job, and then did his job which eventually landed the Governor in prison). Governor Ryan’s Republican machine made it clear that there would be a primary challenge to Senator Fitzgerald in 2004. Fitzgerald probably would have survived, but he would have had to spend millions of his own money to keep the seat. He called it quits.

The Republicans then found a nominee named Jack Ryan (no relation to the Governor). Things looked good until the Democrats found Ryan’s divorce papers in a California court file (the Republicans did not think to look into the divorce before nominating Ryan). When the divorce papers revealed tales of Paris s&m bars and other salacious material, Ryan was finished (that kind of thing does not fly downstate where the Republican votes are).

At that point, I strongly suggested that the Illinois Republican Party look to its younger generation of rising stars, perhaps State Representative Chapin Rose (R – Mahomet). Even if it lost the seat, the Party would have a chance to showcase honesty and intellectual gravitas in its younger ranks. This suggestion was ignored. For a while it looked as if a dogcatcher, provided it was Governor Ryan’s dogcatcher, could get the nomination. I even considered making a go for it on a reform platform – but I knew that my talents, whatever they might be, lay elsewhere.

The Republicans did worse than the dog catcher. Alan Keyes is a bright man with interesting ideas, but he ran a lackluster campaign, most of it from offices out of state. State Senator Obama was destined to score a blowout, winning the entire State by margins Democrats had thus far achieved only in Chicago. He was going to be the star of the 2004 Democratic convention. The rest is history.

I have since left Illinois, but I am saddened by the fact that so many governors and other Illinois politicians have headed off to jail over so many years, and politicians who are corrupt remain in office. Many Illinois politicians are not corrupt, but they tolerate corruption. Some, including now President Obama and State Representative Rose whom I mentioned earlier and who served on the committee that impeached Governor Blagojevich, speak out against corruption. The fact that these people serve in the Illinois legislature with some corrupt colleagues – or that they may meet some corrupt people along the way — should not be held against them unless we do not want anybody honest going into politics in Illinois. Regardless of party affiliation, I hope we can look back with pride upon the era of Stevenson and Percy, be grateful in the present for President Obama’s commitment to ethics whether or not we agree with his policies, and look forward to a new more ethically fit generation of leaders in Illinois and around the Country. This has nothing to do with being a Republican – it has everything to do with being an American.