Culture of Corruption

Posted Dec. 11, 2008, at 7:05 p.m.

Most Americans are appalled by the accusations leveled at Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich. U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald alleges the Democratic governor was angling to exchange his appointment to President-elect Barack Obama’s now-vacant U.S. Senate seat for a lucrative job for himself or his wife or for financial remuneration.

What led the governor — if the charges prove to be true — to be so cynical about his responsibilities as an elected official?

Is this behavior an aberration or business as usual in Illinois? Sadly, the answer to that question seems to be the latter. Three governors have been convicted of federal crimes over the last three decades.

Former Gov. George Ryan was convicted of corruption charges in 2006 for awarding state contracts and leases to political allies while he was the state’s secretary of state in exchange for Caribbean vacations. Gov. Ryan was prosecuted by Attorney Fitzgerald, who called the crimes “a low-water mark of public service.” Former Gov. Otto Kerner was convicted in a racing-stock scandal, and former Gov. Dan Walker was convicted of corruption involving bank loans.

Though the seat of Illinois state government is in Springfield, the state’s largest city, Chicago, is notorious for its political scandals. Mayor Richard J. Daley, who served from 1955 to 1976, was the last of the old-time political bosses. He is believed by many to have overseen ballot-box stuffing during the 1960 presidential election won by John Kennedy.

It’s hard to imagine any of these scandals happening in Maine. The worst corruption seen here in recent history includes irregularities by Clean Election candidates and a ballot-box stuffing incident during legislative race recounts in the early 1990s.

It may be because Maine is a big small town, as former Gov. Angus King often describes it, and blatant corruption would leak to the public in short order.

Or it may be something more profound.

Politics is a dirty business. At its core, it is the art of managing power relationships that are constantly in flux. It involves trading votes, support and favors. Feigning support or opposition, rhetorical smears and even intimidation and threats of retribution are all part of the currency in government. It’s naive to think one can be successful without engaging in some behind-the-scenes chest butting or tough talk.

But the difference between Maine and Illinois may be like the difference between a middle school basketball game and an NBA contest. The referees in a middle school gym would not allow the poke of an elbow during the struggle for a rebound, while NBA refs will tolerate that and more. Once the rules are relaxed, the winners are those who come close to, but do not break them. Maine elected officials have upheld a high ethical standard. Expecting no less will keep Maine government clean.

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