December 03, 2022


Nowlan: Draining Lake Michigan with a spoon

Jim Nowlan

Illinois is known across the land for political corruption. I always get a hearty, knowing chuckle when I tell Rotary Club luncheons that I have worked for three unindicted Illinois governors.

(True: Ogilvie, Thompson, Edgar. The other four across that era were all measured for striped suits: Kerner, Walker, Ryan, Blagojevich.)

Recently, the attorney for a Chicago alderman found guilty of political corruption (one of 37 since 1972, and counting) cynically argued against jail time for his client. He scoffed that any possible deterrent effect would be “no more effective than draining Lake Michigan with a spoon.” Ouch.

This unfortunate — for Illinois — phrase will enter the lexicon of Illinois politics alongside the famous harrumph by a Chicago ward boss to a young innocent jobseeker, who came into his office alone and unsponsored: “We don’t want nobody nobody sent.”

Political corruption in Illinois has a hallowed tradition, you might say, and it is bipartisan. In 1913, after a long trial in the U.S. Senate, the solons expelled their Illinois Republican colleague William Lorimer. The Blonde Boss of Chicago and his co-conspirators had bribed 40 Democratic state legislators with $2,500 each (when the new Model T cost $750) to join with Republicans to elect him to the Senate in 1909. The scandal spurred the direct election of senators.

In the 1920s, GOP Gov. Len Small of Kankakee was tried twice for embezzling millions from the state. He was acquitted at his first, criminal trial; two months later, eight of the jurors had received really good state jobs! In a later civil trial, Small was forced to pay the state $650,000 to repay funds embezzled when he was state treasurer. Small leaned on state patronage workers to cover the payment.

But since then, most of the corruption has emanated from Cook County and Chicago, dominated by the Democratic Party.

The indictment March 2 of former Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan, for half a century a power broker in our state’s politics, will tee up corruption as a major issue in the November election.

One of the candidates for governor has already declared that if elected he would eliminate corruption in our state. Fat chance. Corruption is baked into our culture.

That doesn’t mean we are all corrupt, but that too many of us would indeed take advantage of government if presented with the opportunity.

For example, when I was teaching American politics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in the early 2000s, I asked each class of juniors and seniors, many headed for law school, about the following: Your brother has been charged with a serious DUI, but your brother’s lawyer said he could get him off — if brother slipped the attorney $1,000 in cash, beyond his fee. Would you recommend to your brother that he “go for it,” or reject the idea?

In every one of five or six different courses, two-thirds of all the students, in their anonymous responses, said: “Go for it.” In one class I was astounded that 14 of the 17 students agreed. When I asked why they would recommend going for it, one student offered a typical response, with others nodding: Brother is in a tough spot — and that’s the way it’s done in Illinois. My brother would be the fool for not taking advantage of the offer.

After a while, I gave up looking for an honest class.

It’s a slippery slope, as they say, from a DUI to successfully bribing a judge to set free a mob assassin so he could kill again, and again. This actually happened in the 1970s, when much of the Cook County court system was controlled, or at least heavily influenced, by The Outfit.

Corruption hurts Illinois. In 2011, I surveyed local economic development officials across Illinois. One of my questions was about ethics. Does the state’s reputation for corruption have any impact on your recruiting of business from outside the state? Three-quarters of the 70 respondents said perceptions of Illinois as corrupt had either a negative or a highly negative impact on their efforts to recruit business to come to Illinois. One said: Illinois is known for “pay to play.” Another observed: In Illinois, political clout is believed to help.

No governor can transform a political culture of corruption in his or her term. But the chief executive can use his bully pulpit to declare a very public war on corruption and set a high bar for conduct by his administration. The governor can also seek elimination of ludicrous, self-serving statutes such as the one that requires the “independent” legislative inspector general to first get approval of lawmakers before he can investigate a complaint against one of their fellow legislators.

Finally, we can all stop taking advantage of government, simply because “that’s the way it’s done in Illinois,” and exhort our children to follow our lead. That’s how cultures change.

• Jim Nowlan is the lead author of “Illinois Politics” (University of Illinois Press, 2010) and “Fixing Illinois” (U. of I. Press, 2014). He is a former chair of the Illinois Executive Ethics Commission.

Jim Nowlan

Jim Nowlan

Jim Nowlan is a retired professor and former Illinois legislator and state agency director. He has worked for three unindicted Illinois governors.