Editor's Notebook: Ethics seem to be on the agenda

Jun 1, 2003

Peggy Boyer Long
Credit WUIS/Illinois Issues

What is it about Illinois? The Land of Lincoln has a long- running, nationwide reputation for political corruption, and we aren’t in a position to complain. There is hard evidence — even Illinoisans can see it — to rank this state among the ethic-ally challenged. These days especially, when it wouldn’t come as any surprise if the slogan on Illinois’ license plates read, “What’s in it for me?”

Federal prosecutors now have the attention of even the most jaded. The racketeering convictions of a former statewide official’s top aide and — this is a first — his campaign committee inspired political scholars and practitioners to convene a summit on ethics. It spurred the governor to push to train state workers. And it motivated lawmakers to agree on some reforms.

Ethics, it seems, is on the agenda. 

Yet, we should remember, Illinois’ roster of political scoundrels dates from statehood, and they are larger-than-life figures. Some are remarkable for the scale of their greed. Some because their ambitions reached the humorous. Some because their schemes touched on the banal, objects of the everyday that became a shorthand for character. Shoeboxes, say, or barbecue grills and industrial-size shredders.

Even when measured on a national scale, these characters are standouts. Why is that? Former federal judge Abner Mikva jokes that “it can’t be the water.” Illinois, after all, shares the shores of Lake Michigan with Wisconsin. But the political culture of the Badger State, though it has faced scandals of its own over the past couple of years, shares nothing in common with that of the Prairie State.

The reasons, says Mikva, who has represented Chicago in the Illinois legislature and in Congress, are cultural and political. “Illinoisans have a weird pride in their history of political corruption.” It’s true. We love tales about the late Secretary of State Paul Powell, who reportedly left shoeboxes full of cash, and long-gone Chicago boodlers “Hinky Dink” Kenna and “Bathhouse John” Coughlin. The statesmen we leave to historians.

As for political scientists, they place Illinois among those states with individualistic political cultures. Unlike the citizens of Wisconsin, who tend to see civic engagement as a moral enterprise, Illinoisans are generally disposed to leave government to professionals, who, broadly speaking, see public service as a form of personal entrepreneurship. An approach that doesn’t bother Illinoisans much unless the grab for spoils gets out of hand.

In their book Illinois Politics and Government: The Expanding Metropolitan Frontier, Sam Gove and Jim Nowlan write that “in Chicago parlance, the culture is best described as ‘Where’s mine?’ but in more genteel circles, the Illinois system might be termed a government-as-marketplace, where a give-and-take process allocates ‘fair shares’ of the pie to those who have earned a place at the table.” 

This traces to the state’s earliest settlement. Immigrants brought their cultures with them and passed them on. In this way, too, the political culture of City Hall is modeled to the next gener-ation. Same goes at the Statehouse, where Paul Powell is reputed to have said, “My friends eat at the first table.”

So is it nature or nurture? Mikva and a panel of political experts wrestled with this and other questions in April, just as Illinois lawmakers entered the final month of their spring session. The summit, “Politics and Ethics in Illinois: Past, Present and Future,” was sponsored by the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Center for Governmental Studies at the University of Illinois at Springfield, and among the panelists were former state officials, reformers and political scientists.

On this they agreed: The majority of Illinois officials are honest and well-intentioned. But panelists weighed whether opportunity, if not propensity, for corruption is endemic to our governmental system, or whether this is the legacy of a few bad apples. 

Mikva emphasized structure. He recommended reducing the number of governments, which, in Illinois, includes the state, counties, munici- palities, townships, school districts and special units such as park districts. “A plethora abounds,” he says. “It confounds, it astounds and it’s hard as hell to dislodge.” His argument: Multiplicity confuses voters, enables governments to work anonymously and reduces public accountability. All reasons elected officials are unlikely to decide soon that less is more.

Individual responsibility got more emphasis. Mike Lawrence argued that problems stem from the culture an official establishes. Lawrence, who was press secretary to former Gov. Jim Edgar, is now associate director of the Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale. And political scientist Kent Redfield at UIS, who tracks the relationship between money and politics, noted the “win at all costs” values taught by some government aides to workers “lower down the food chain.” 

But, no surprise, the widest range of opinion centered on the value and limitations in prohibitions. Former state agency director Howard Peters III, for one, saw no reason to allow public officials to accept gifts of any kind for any reason. Former state Sen. Howard Carroll countered that “you can’t legislate ethics; you can’t cover every possible situation.” But Alan Rosenthal, a political scientist at Rutgers University and an expert on states’ legislative ethics, argued some laws can change a capital’s culture, though maybe not a state’s culture. 

But in Illinois, the “burglars,” as Mikva calls them, tend to overreach. The federal probe into licenses for bribes has netted dozens of convictions, and Illinoisans have been treated to tales of state workers campaigning on the taxpayer’s dime, stealing government property and attempting to destroy evidence by grilling it in a barbecue or shredding it to bits.

Lawmakers couldn’t ignore this. In the final hours of their session, they agreed to spell out political activities state workers are prohibited from performing on state time — and ban, specifically, theft of state property to politick. They prohibited taxpayer-funded bonuses to state workers for campaigning. They signed on to ethics training for state workers, and established protections for whistle blowers. They took a pass, though, on author-izing the means to enforce these strictures through inspectors general or new ethics commissions. And they chose not to put tighter restrictions on lobbyists’ gifts to public officials. Cynthia Canary, who heads the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform and served on the summit panel, faxed an immediate response: “There was little evidence today that Illinois leaders are serious about changing business as usual.” 

Can Illinois change? Summit panelist David Kenney argued that “you don’t change it by making a few rules, no matter how carefully we write them.” Kenney, who has headed two state agencies and taught political science at SIU-C, believes this state’s political culture is deep-seated, and any major change will take time.

Other Illinoisans got a chance to weigh in, though. The Survey Research Office at UIS interviewed more than 400 randomly selected households for approximately half an hour on attitudes about corruption. The poll was taken in April. Among the results: Nearly 80 percent of those surveyed believe corruption in state government does affect the lives of citizens; almost 90 percent believe government employees found guilty of corruption should be “punished severely”; but almost 70 percent agree that “law enforcement in Illinois has tended to look the other way when it comes to political corruption.” In short, Illinoisans appear, for now, to be taking political corruption in their state seriously enough to want to see the perpetrators caught and punished.


Peggy Boyer Long can be reached at Peggyboy@aol.com.


Illinois Issues, June 2003