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Corruption: A Proven Winner

Illinois is a bizarro-world inverse of the rest of the country, where Democrats dominate all branches of government, set the debate and drive policy, while Republicans grasp for a coherent message. Are there any lessons to be gleaned for Democrats elsewhere?
 
 
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On election night 2002, hundreds of Illinois Democrats--politicians, supporters and activists--crowded into the Finkl Steel plant on Chicago's near North Side. They munched Chicago-style dogs, pounded cans of Old Style beer and waited expectantly for confirmation of what everyone already suspected: Illinois Democrats had kicked ass. Rod Blagojevich (whose father had worked at Finkl Steel) had beaten Attorney General Jim Ryan to become the first Democratic governor in 25 years. Democrats swept the rest of the state's races, ending the night in control of both houses of the legislature and every statewide office but treasurer. At 11 pm Blagojevich took the stage to the sounds of his favorite musician, Elvis, and told the crowd he was "all shook up" and filled with "a whole bunch of hunka-hunka burnin' love for each one of you!" It was a corny line, but the crowd was too euphoric to notice.

I went home buzzing with excitement, having almost forgotten I'd neglected to check the returns from outside the state. It wasn't until I listened to a series of increasingly dejected messages from my brother that I realized what a disaster the night had been.

Such is the state of politics in Illinois: a bizarro-world inverse of the rest of the country, where Democrats dominate all branches of government, set the debate and drive policy, while Republicans are beset by nasty, public intramural squabbles between moderates and extremists and grasp for a coherent message. Election night 2004 looked a lot like the one we rang in at Finkl Steel: Barack Obama won his Senate seat by a 43-point margin over Alan Keyes, and newcomer Melissa Bean, a businesswoman from the suburbs of Chicago, defeated Phil Crane, the longest-serving Republican incumbent in the House. In the wake of the almost-too-awful-to-watch spectacle of Keyes' candidacy (whose intent, one Republican quipped to me, seemed to be to get the lowest percentage of the vote possible), the state GOP is practically on life support.

It wasn't always like this. For much of the 20th century, Illinois was the quintessential swing state, the Ohio of its day. Its state government tilted toward moderate Republicans. It voted for the winner in the presidential election 21 of 24 times in the 20th century through 1996, going for Reagan in 1980 and 1984, George Bush I in 1988 and Clinton in 1992 and 1996. The rock-ribbed Republican suburban "collar" counties around Chicago canceled out the heavily Democratic city, leaving the fate of statewide elections to the fiercely independent voters downstate. Now the state looks like a Democratic lock--Gore and Kerry both won it by double-digit margins--and in these dark days you've got to wonder, How did this happen? And are there any lessons to be gleaned for Democrats elsewhere?

Local observers use the term "perfect storm" to describe the confluence of disparate factors that has produced such a true-blue state, but it's clear that demographic changes account for much of the transformation. Over the past decade, both Chicago and its surrounding suburbs have been getting progressively more Democratic as a result of the widespread migration of black and Latino families into the collar counties, an influx of immigrants and the rightward tilt of the national GOP on social issues, which has alienated many suburban moderates. Also, as John Judis and Ruy Teixeira argue in their book The Emerging Democratic Majority , the transition of the regional economy from manufacturing to service and technology has brought with it a substantial number of professionals with graduate degrees, a group that increasingly forms a bedrock Democratic constituency.

Regrettably, Illinois' freshly-minted suburban Democrats can't be exported to red states to help pad the party's margins. But demographic changes are far from the whole story behind Illinois's political makeover; the indicted former Republican Gov. George Ryan has a lot to do with it as well. "What has caused the collapse really goes back to corruption," says Dan Proft, president of the conservative journal Illinois Leader . "It goes back to a former governor who's awaiting federal trial; it goes back to more than seventy convictions of people from Ryan's administration in the last three years. It really goes back to a systematic undercurrent of corruption that's been part of Illinois politics for a long time."

Before his term as governor, Ryan served as secretary of state, where he ran an office that was a den of cronyism and corruption. Employees were pressured to contribute to his campaign, and to acquire the cash necessary for these donations they routinely offered driver's licenses in exchange for bribes. In 1994 a truck driver who had several DUI convictions caused the tragic death of six children when the tail-light assembly from his truck fell off and lodged in the fuel tank of the family's van, causing it to explode. When, in a subsequent lawsuit, depositions suggested that the driver had ignored fellow truckers' advice to fix his truck and had acquired his license through a bribe, the local media and the U.S. Attorney General's office pounced. The fallout from the licenses-for-bribes scandal has driven state political news coverage for the past four years, and decimated the GOP.

In 2002, as the scandal was reaching a fever pitch, Blagojevich won the gubernatorial race by successfully exploiting the taint of scandal against his opponent, Attorney General Jim Ryan, who, while neither related to nor implicated in the scandal, had the misfortune of sharing the same political party and last name as George Ryan. Blagojevich ran a barrage of ads showing side-by-side pictures of Jim Ryan and George Ryan, and promised to clean up state government and pass ethics reform.

But the damage done by licenses-for-bribes has reverberated well past that election, tarnishing the entire Republican brand in the state. When in last year's U.S. Senate race Republican nominee Jack Ryan went down in flames after sealed divorce records revealed he had pressured his wife into attending sex clubs, there was a general "here we go again" feeling to the coverage, despite the fact that Jack Ryan's sins were venial and George Ryan's mortal. (As a side note, it probably hasn't helped things that Republicans keep nominating candidates with the same surname as the indicted governor.) Melissa Bean attributes at least some of her support to scandal fatigue among Republicans in her district. "I think it helped a lot," she told me. "It's one thing to be the right candidate for the district and another to be the right candidate at the right time. There's no question that this was a district that was ready for change."

"We've got to be pure as the driven snow," says former GOP Governor Jim Edgar. "That's always been one of our issues: running against the Democrats, running against the Chicago machine. When the Republicans lost that edge, that hurt us. We've got to get that back. We can't be perceived as a party that's made up of crooks, or we're just not going to win."

It is here, in the dregs of corruption and ethical violations, that there are some lessons for Democrats outside of Illinois. "You go back to 1993--the party that has spoken to the agenda of change and reform is the party that's more successful," says Fifth District Congressman Rahm Emanuel, who represents much of Chicago's North Side. Running as a reformer against a corrupt establishment is one of the oldest and most successful narratives in American politics. It also happens to be right on the merits; so in this case, to quote former Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley, good politics is good government.

Nobody should know this better than the Congressional Republicans who came to power in 1994 in the wake of a series of House scandals that had been ably hyped by Newt Gingrich as part of what he called an "ethics offensive." The Contract With America, which began with a promise to "restore accountability to Congress [and] to end its cycle of scandal and disgrace," was as much about shaking up the ossified Democratic leadership (term limits, stricter rules on gifts from lobbyists) as it was about substantive policies.

But as movement conservative Quin Hillyer lamented recently in The New Republic Online, "ten years into the GOP revolution that Gingrich started, the ethics of Congressional Republicans can only be described as, well, offensive." From rolling back limits on gifts from lobbyists, to making it more difficult for the ethics subcommittee to initiate investigations, to closing the legislative process off from public scrutiny, the GOP leadership is well on its way to outdoing even the most corrupt members of the old House Democratic establishment. In fact, put up against the accusations of Tom DeLay's illegal fundraising and lobbyist-sponsored junkets, or the reported attempt to bribe Republican Congressman Nick Smith of Michigan to vote for the Medicare boondoggle with promises of cash for his son's campaign, the transgressions of Chicago legend Dan Rostenkowski, the longtime baron of the House Ways and Means Committee who served 17 months in federal prison for mail fraud, look positively quaint.

Says Ninth District Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky, who represents the far North Side and northern suburbs, "People may believe, unless we forcefully make the case, that this kind of fooling around with the rules, this kind of shutting down of democracy in a heavy-handed if not criminal way--that that's kind of business as usual among politicians."

Schakowsky's right. Democrats do have to make the case forcefully. In Illinois the U.S. Attorney's office played a key role in doggedly pursuing GOP corruption, and if Democrats learned anything from the Clinton years, it's the power of an officially sanctioned investigation to turn smoke into fire. But with the GOP currently controlling both houses and barring any ethics investigations that don't have majority support, Democrats will have to rely on the press and public outrage. Of late, it seems congressional Democrats have been catching on to this, taking steps to move the ball forward on the scandals that the blogosphere has worked feverishly to call attention to, pushing for a floor vote to reinstate revoked ethics rules, and issuing a 147-page report about the "death of deliberative democracy" under the GOP's reign.

The pushback over the DeLay amendment, in which House Republicans first voted to change their rules so DeLay could retain his leadership position even if indicted and then reversed themselves after an outcry from Democrats, was a high point. (Of course, a few weeks later the GOP leadership purged three Republican committee members, including chairman Joel Hefley, who had opposed the DeLay amendment.)

But it's still not enough. Congressional Democrats should take a page out of Gingrich's and Blagojevich's books and propose comprehensive ethics reform. They should talk about the "corrupt Republicans" and "restoring transparency and integrity" at every turn. They should use DeLay's mounting ignominy to tar fellow Republicans who benefit from his fundraising and clout. In short, they should make Republican scandal and Democratic reform one of the central narratives of their opposition over the next two years. "Newt Gingrich came to power because of an ethics scandal," says Obama's state political director, Dan Shomon. "Rod Blagojevich got elected partly because of scandal. You can defeat an incumbent if you can catch his or her hand in the cookie jar."

Christopher Hayes is a contributing editor of In These Times and the Chicago editor of the forthcoming Just Cause magazine.