Illinois reformer says Blago verdict could reinforce cynicism -- or galvanize voters to take action
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 17, 2010 - Former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich's one-count conviction Tuesday could reinforce the state's "cynicism virus" -- or galvanize voters to take action in the November elections, says the head of a watchdog group that pushes for political reform in the state.
"One of the fears about how this trial plays out is that it will be the backdrop to the election," said Cindi Canary, director of the nonpartisan Illinois Campaign for Political Reform. "A trial like this can do one of two things: It can galvanize people to want to make things different or it can make them very cynical. It's hard to say what will happen, but I worry about this in the lead-up to the election."
Canary said the fact that the jurors had sought direction from the judge took some surprise out of the news that they could agree on just one count -- that Blagojevich was guilty of lying to the FBI -- but couldn't agree on the 23 other felony counts, including his alleged attempts to auction off President Barack Obama's vacated Senate seat.
"Right now, I think we're all up to our eyeballs in spin," said Canary. "I wasn't shocked, but the notion that we have to go through this again -- that it may well go through Election Day -- is utterly exhausting. It is just cringe-worthy to think of hearing more tapes."
The Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, founded by the late U.S. Sen. Paul Simon, is a nonpartisan organization funded by donations from individuals and foundations. The group works for judicial, ethics and campaign finance reform in the state.
Canary said it is unfortunate that the jury couldn't find its way through the other 23 charges, but that Blagojevich was, in fact, convicted of a felony, despite his attempts to spin the verdict as a victory. She said he is guilty of letting Illinois residents down.
"His rhetoric about being persecuted rather than prosecuted -- and why should (taxpayers) spend money on my trial when babies are dying and policemen are getting shot," Canary said. "My take on that is that one of the reasons Illinois is in the fiscal crisis we're in is because we went so many years without leadership at the helm."
Canary worries that while Blagojevich waits to face a retrial, he will once again take to the airwaves -- his radio show and the reality TV show circuit.
"The trial itself and a lot of what was revealed were really painful. It makes us look like a comic book state. Where's the governor? He's hiding in the bathroom," she said. "That is harmful in how people look at us nationally and internationally, particularly at a time when we're trying to dig out of an immense fiscal hole. That ultimately is harmful for investments in the state. To be known as the seat of national corruption is not a laughing matter."
Canary said that although a retrial will be costly, she believes that it is essential for federal prosecutors to resolve the charges against the governor who was impeached by the state legislature and removed from office in January 2009. Blagojevich, a Democrat, was succeeded by then-Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn, who is running for governor in November.
"It is important to keep in mind that Blagojevich was not acquitted of these charges. It is a hung jury in a state that is absolutely plagued with corruption; and my fear is that if the prosecution does not follow through, it sends a signal that in fact we accept this as business as usual in the state. And the price tag on that, to my mind, is even more costly than what it costs to prosecute," Canary said.
She said that Illinois residents too often express a sense of resignation to corrupt politics as being just business as usual.
Three of the state's past governors have served time. Republican George Ryan, Blagojevich's predecessor, is now serving a federal corruption sentence. Democrat Dan Walker, governor in the mid-'70s, went to prison for a banking conviction unrelated to his elected position. Otto Kerner, governor in the 1960s, served time for bribery, conspiracy and perjury.
"There is a tendency to want to think that government doesn't have anything to do with me,'' Canary said. "They're just going about their shenanigans. That's politics. That's horse-trading. They're all crooks, but it doesn't matter to me."
Canary said the argument she makes against the "cynicism virus" is that what politicians do really does matter.
"If you really believe that this state is inherently corrupt and cannot be fixed and will forever be on this downward spiral of political 'me-first, the public down the line sometime later,' then why in the world would you choose to live here? Raise your children here? Put them in schools here? If this is something you accept, what does that say about the values that we hold and the values that we're trying to share with our kids?"
Two years after the Blagojevich indictment rocked the state, Canary insists that Illinois is making some progress. She points to new election-reform laws that her organization worked for that curb "pay-to-play" -- the ability of big campaign contributors to buy political favor and state contracts.
"We have a new cast of characters in place and at least for the time being a new era of caution in the wind in Springfield," she said. "The ban on 'pay-to-play' that Blagojevich was alleged to be trying so hard to get out ahead of -- I think that it has been quite effective. We have heard of no one trying to evade it."
While that law has been a good start at disconnecting the influence of political cash on state contracts, she says that another key piece of reform -- legislation to limit campaign contributions -- will not come on line until January 2011. So she expects some very large political contributions to be made in specific state races before the November elections.
"This is our last election of 'give away the store,' " Canary said.
Blagojevich faces a maximum of five years in prison on the one count on which he was convicted. The jury deadlocked on all four counts against brother Rob Blagojevich. Prosecutors said they would retry the impeached governor. | Chicago Tribune
Juror says vote was 11-1 to convict on charge of trying to auction Obama's Senate seat. | AP
Quinn: Sad day for Illinois. | Chicago Tribune
Impetus to fix Illinois politics fades. | New York Times
This article originally appeared in the St. Louis Beacon.