One of the great failures in studying the politics of American cities has been the assumptions political scientists have used. Many academics assume that politicians work toward serving the public interest. In this naïve or dishonest world, an informed public (aided by a vigilant press) votes for candidates that rise above petty self interest to promote the common good. Recently, The University of Illinois-Chicago Political Science department released an impressive empirical study on corruption. Chicago is number one in public corruption. The facts are rather disturbing, “Since 1973, 31 more aldermen have been convicted of corruption. Approximately 100 aldermen have served since then, which is a conviction rate of about one-third.”
The study shows that Chicago city council isn’t the only place in Illinois racking up felony convictions. Illinois Governors have an “ethics problem”:
Since 1970, four Illinois governors have been convicted of corruption. Yet only seven men have held this office in this time, meaning more than half of the state’s governors have been convicted in the past forty-two years. Otto Kerner, who served from 1961 until his resignation in 1968 to accept a federal judgeship, was convicted in 1973 of mail fraud, bribery, perjury, and income tax evasion while governor. Dan Walker, who served from 1973 – 1977, was convicted in 1987 of obtaining fraudulent loans for the business he operated after he left office.
George Ryan, who served from 1999 – 2003, was found guilty in 2006 of racketeering, conspiracy and numerous other charges. Many of the charges were part of a huge scandal, later called “Licenses for Bribes,” which resulted in the conviction of more than 40 state workers and private citizens. The scandal involved unqualified truck drivers receiving licenses in exchange for bribes that would ultimately end up in Ryan’s campaign fund. The scandal came to light when a recipient of one of these licenses crashed in to a van and killed six children. But perhaps the most famous of all Illinois corrupt officials is Rod Blagojevich, who served from 2003 until his impeachment in 2009. Blagojevich was ultimately convicted in 2011 of trying to sell the U.S. Senate seat vacated by Barack Obama. Other charges included his attempting to shake down Children’s Memorial Hospital for a campaign contribution in return for funding and his trying to extort a racetrack owner.
When Rod Blagojevich reports in March to Littleton, Colorado, American history will be made. Illinois will have to back-to- back Governors in jail at the same time. What is it about Chicago and Illinois voters that gets them to vote for crooks? The data in the study is based on Justice Department numbers going back to 1976.
As we move closer to the next Presidential election, Barack Obama’s association with Chicago’s political culture is bound to be an issue once again. How could a Chicago politician rise so far, so fast, without questioning the corrupt part of the country he comes from? It’s something to keep in mind when you read this study.