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Commentary: Illinois Vote clubs

Tens of thousands of Illinoisans in cities and hamlets throughout the state relish the intellectual stimulation, companionship and shared humanity of book clubs. Why not voter clubs?

They could use the dung of the George Ryan-Rod Blagojevich era to fertilize grassroots energy and empowerment. They could galvanize voter remorse over helping to elect one or both of the disgraced governors in a resurgence of responsible citizenship. They could engage the outraged. They could convert anger, exasperation and frustration into action, enlightenment and fulfillment.

Folks could gather in living rooms, in coffee houses and online.

Not enough time to compare the records of all the state and local candidates with their rhetoric and their commercials? Divide the responsibility, collect the knowledge and then discuss and even debate the implications.

No idea of where to look? Resources abound in print and on the web. News organizations will nourish and help launch voter clubs. Groups like the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform and the League of Women Voters will embrace the opportunity to guide Illinoisans through the fog of puffery and propaganda to more trustworthy information.

Such activism promises to diminish the influence of 30-second ads that often mislead voters, dramatically escalate campaign costs, heighten the pressure for candidates to court cash-flush interest groups and individuals - and did more than anything else to elect and re-elect Rod Blagojevich. Indeed, the impact of voter clubs would be magnified if members prodded television stations, which reap a bounty from the hyperbolic commercial messages, to provide considerably more than brainless sound bites from candidates through expanded public affairs programming.

As the scandalized Ryan was exiting office, Blagojevich used the millions he amassed to cast himself in 2002 ads as a change agent despite his lackluster performance as a lawmaker and his babble on the campaign trail when he fell off script.

By the time he ran for re-election in 2006, the media had reported he had borrowed billions to expand government spending, flouted the Illinois constitution, lost the trust of other officials, gridlocked government, raked in hefty contributions from those holding or seeking state contracts and attracted keen interest from corruption cops. But he drowned his prime opponent in a torrent of commercials that distracted voters from his negatives by depicting her as kooky and tainted by association with Ryan.

Even though Illinoisans had elected Judy Baar Topinka an unprecedented three times as state treasurer, they rejected her in favor of a scammer who, less than 27 months later, would become the only impeached and ousted governor in the state's history.

Millions were fooled twice. Many of them and even some who did not support him bear the shame of a shameless, egocentric man capable of using his own children as shields and props - a man who betrayed and embarrassed us and stands most culpable for bringing our state to the brink of insolvency. But we must learn from our mistakes without dwelling on them. We must move forward, and nothing is more important to Illinois' recovery than building an informed citizenry.

Don't withdraw in disgust. Don't let anger trump rationality.

Too many politicians play to alienation and ignorance. Get involved. Become knowledgeable. Do it individually or in groups. Voter clubs could play a significant role, especially if they remain vibrant after an election by focusing on major issues.

As book club members well know, neither the jacket nor the blurbs tell the whole story. We need to keep that in mind as we pursue our responsibilities as citizens - and there's nothing wrong with having fun while we do it.

Mike Lawrence, former director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University, writes a twice-monthly column.

This article originally appeared in the St. Louis Beacon.