One Illinois governor is in prison. Another was arrested and removed from office, accused of offering a U.S. Senate seat to the highest bidder. The man appointed to that Senate seat is under investigation for lying.
Illinois politics are the laughingstock of America, and government accountability is at low ebb in the state.
Not everyone is laughing.
An angry citizenry is calling for change as the state struggles with a skyrocketing budget gap and as a politically hamstrung legislature fails to deal with important issues like affordable health care and soaring utility rates.
In a recent poll of residents over age 50, an overwhelming majority said the state is on the wrong track. Eight in 10 support a litany of anti-corruption reforms including right-to-know laws, lobbyist disclosure of clients, and banning political contributions from businesses and unions.
AARP Illinois has taken the helm in demanding reform. With business leaders, philanthropic organizations and government accountability groups, AARP is at the vanguard of a coalition called CHANGE Illinois. The goal: campaign finance reform, reducing the influence of campaign contributors and ending the culture of corruption.
AARP is rallying its 1.8 million members in Illinois to demand that government integrity be restored.
“Government reform isn’t typically an issue AARP gets involved in—but sometimes we just don’t have a choice,” said Bob Gallo, state director for AARP.
“Our members are concerned now, more than ever, with government dysfunction,” Gallo said. “They don’t just want us to tackle this issue. They want to know what their elected officials are or aren’t doing to make it happen.”
Corruption in Illinois government is so pervasive that it costs taxpayers at least $300 million annually in waste, misuse of funds and lowered bond ratings, according to a study led by Dick Simpson, head of the political science department at the University of Illinois-Chicago.
Since 1970, at least 1,000 politicians and their associates were convicted of corruption, Simpson said. Estimated losses from fraud do not include the amount of wasted legislative time and programs that fail because of ineffective oversight, he said.
“Corruption is costing taxpayers a bundle at a time when the state is cutting essential services because of money problems,” Simpson said.
A commission appointed by Gov. Pat Quinn, D, as well as a joint legislative committee from both Illinois houses have been taking public testimony into possible sunshine laws, campaign finance limits and other anti-corruption measures.
Efforts like AARP’s are key to mobilize the public, advocates say.
“They are critically, critically important,” said Cindi Canary, executive director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform. “It’s time for the people to speak out and say they are not going to stand by anymore.”
Quinn’s commission is impressed by the passion of public testimony.
“The angry citizen is crucial,” said Hanke Gratteau, a governor’s commission member and former newspaper editor. “There is motivation for the citizen to be more involved than ever in forcing change.”
Lawmakers are taking note.
“We have lost our focus,” admitted state Rep. Lou Lang, D-Skokie. “It’s important for people to continue to voice opinions to help make lasting changes happen.”
Added Christine Radogno, the Senate Republican leader from Lemont, “Illinois residents are sick and tired of partisanship, gamesmanship and petty politics.”
Changes could take years to enact. A determined electorate needs to be vigilant, reform advocates say.
“There is great opposition to doing something among the very legislative body that has to create the change,” said Sheila Simon, a governor’s commission member whose late father, Paul, was a fabled Illinois politician who served in the U.S. Senate. “That’s why continued public pressure is so important.”
Their constituents are watching.
“This is the first formalized opportunity for people to participate,” Chicagoan Joe Lake, 72, said at a recent governor’s commission hearing. “You have to start someplace.”
Ernest Torriero is a freelance writer in Chicago.