Editorial: Waking up Illinois

It seems like the days of honest politics in Illinois – if they ever existed – were eons ago. Perhaps it is foolish to expect tidy dealings from a state where the infamous phrase “vote early and vote often” originated. But no realities, political or otherwise, should ever be an excuse for impropriety and betrayal of public trust.

Even by Illinoisans’ standards, 2005 has been an absurd year. Former Governor George Ryan stands trial in federal court against allegations that he received improper benefits, cash and other gifts in exchange for state government contracts. Chicago Mayor Richard Daley was grilled for two hours in August by federal investigators who finally got around to see how much dirt was swept under the carpets in city hall.

To top it off, Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s office was forced to produce all hiring records at the Department of Children and Family Services since March 2002 after a subpoena issued by a federal grand jury investigating allegations of kickbacks and political handouts in the state’s hiring practices.

The subpoena is particularly embarrassing for Blagojevich, who touted himself as a reformer and vowed to “end business as usual” during his 2002 campaign. This not only negates any positive effects that could have emerged from the passage of the All Kids initiative, a subsidized health care program for all children in Illinois, but also deals a severe blow to his re-election campaign.

Public anger against any allegations of political patronage or cronyism will undoubtedly magnify, especially after the spectacular public display of incompetence by Mike Brown, the former head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, in the wake of Katrina. Already saddled with a chronic budget crisis and perilously low approval ratings, Blagojevich’s chances of winning the Democratic primaries, nevermind re-election, will be crushed at any findings of wrongdoing.

But Illinoisans recognize that the corrosive vice of impropriety is bipartisan in nature. A Chicago Tribune/WGN-TV poll, conducted before the federal subpoena issued against Blagojevich’s office, found that 67 percent of voters in Illinois blame both parties for corruption. What should be even more alarming to both parties is that 50 percent of voters do not think it makes a difference which party is in power when it comes down to eliminating impropriety in the state capitol and beyond.

Admittedly, there are worse things that could happen in government than shady dealings – incompetence, for example. But cavalier spending of tax dollars never goes over well with the electorate. The backlash against the menagerie of pork barrels in Congress, including the $450 million “bridges to nowhere” project for Alaska, is proof enough.

And it’s safe to say that the public opinion against Ryan has worsened after the reports that Illinoisans footed an extra $173,000 when a drivers licensing facility was moved to a building owned by one of the former governor’s good friends. Blagojevich’s current plight will make it easier for voters to group him with the past and present political scoundrels that have plagued the office.

It is true that some of the expectations placed upon public officials by the public can be unreasonable and unrealistic. There is also a twisted trend of deriving unearned self-righteousness from excoriating the president, for example, for extramarital dalliances or disregard for minorities. But wasteful governance and perpetuation of incompetence and corruption are certainly worthy of scorn, and the public has every right to demand changes when those they entrusted with their affairs are not being handled the way they want them to be.

The only losers in all these ordeals are Illinoisans who have been fooled time and time again by sweet promises of change. Neither the state Democrats nor Republican shave delivered on their promises, instead opting to revel in repugnant decadence of smoke-room dealings and back-door politics.

It’s time for a wake-up call. And the best way to get the message through to these indolent and deceitful barons is to drive them out of the office.