Corrupt image numbs Ill. voters
Many in state say they're resigned to shady politics
CHICAGO - Charlotte Podolner has faithfully voted in every election she could in her 88 years, then watched as one Illinois politician after another headed to jail.
That's just the way it goes here, she says, convinced that nothing - not even the federal corruption charges against Governor Rod Blagojevich - will change the state's legacy of shady politics. About 1,000 elected officials, including three governors, have been convicted of corruption since the early 1970s.
"Chicago has a . . . reputation for corrupt politics. It's not flattering, but we're always thought of as manipulators," said Podolner, a retired Chicago office worker. "It's part of our tradition."
But political analysts say voters themselves bear some responsibility because they have continued to elect officials of questionable character. Many appear to accept corruption as part and parcel of politics and often are willing to put up with it if they get something in return.
"In several parts of Illinois, voters have come to tolerate a certain level of corruption if they're getting their streets plowed after a snowstorm and getting their garbage picked up," said Mike Lawrence, a retired director at the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at the University of Southern Illinois. "Voters need to take their citizenship seriously."
Retired machinist Charles Lee, 56, said he wishes corrupt officials wouldn't keep getting elected in Illinois, but says it is not his fault. "We don't have that good of a choice," he said.
That might be an overstatement, and there are other reasons for Illinois' problems, including that so many candidates are entrenched in the state's machine politics and lax campaign-contribution laws, analysts said.
"If you say Illinois politics are corrupt and there are no good people, that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy," said Kent Redfield a political scientist at the University of Illinois at Springfield.
Illinois has few limits on who can contribute money to candidates and how much they can give. In his 2006 reelection campaign, Blagojevich - who had amassed a huge campaign fund - wooed voters by outspending his Republican challenger, former state treasurer Judy Baar Topinka, by more than 2 to 1.
Blagojevich, dogged at the time by allegations of corrupt hiring practices, spent more than $16 million in the last half of 2006, while Topinka spent just over $6 million.
Blagojevich has been under federal investigation for several years over allegations of hiring fraud and allegedly trading political favors for campaign donations. He was arrested last month on corruption charges and faces an impeachment trial in the Senate.
He has not been convicted of any wrongdoing.
Twesi Hopkins, a Chicago resident and former public school teacher, voted for Blagojevich twice, even though he had heard of corruption investigations involving the Democratic governor before his 2006 reelection. Hopkins, 59, generally has been happy with the governor's leadership, like approving free rides for seniors on Chicago-area public transportation.
"They haven't proved anything," he said of the investigation.
Blagojevich isn't the first governor to get caught up in scandal. Former governor Otto Kerner served time for a 1973 conviction on charges including bribery. Former governor Dan Walker pleaded guilty in 1987 to bank fraud and perjury. And in 2006, former Republican governor George Ryan was convicted of steering state contracts in exchange for favors. He is serving a 6 1/2-year prison sentence.
Carlo Van Zandt, 63, a Chicago entrepreneur, said it may not be right but shady politics is the Illinois way. "Pay under the table, subterfuge, diversion - it's a syndrome that's been going on so long it's established itself in the roots of Chicago," he said. "Things aren't earned, they're bequeathed."
Podolner, who lives in President-elect Barack Obama's neighborhood, believes the former Illinois senator wasn't in Illinois long enough to be tainted by the state's politics.
"Obama really lifted us in the eyes of the world," she said.
But she quickly added with a short laugh that the Blagojevich charges "brought us back down to the level of Al Capone."