Political corruption scandals have emerged in recent months in various offices and states across the country. But nowhere are they more conspicuous than in Illinois, a state that has been plagued by political corruption for more than a century. From the arrest of former Governor Rod Blagojevich and his subsequent impeachment and removal from office, to the revelations this week that Senate appointee Roland Burris’s involvement in raising contributions for the Governor may have contradicted sworn statements to Illinois lawmakers, there is no denying that Illinois’ longstanding wound has been re-opened.
An independent poll conducted by Belden, Russonello & Stewart (BRS) and released last month by the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform demonstrates just that. The research firm queried 802 adults in Illinois on their present attitudes toward government and political reform. Several of the questions tracked public sentiment in previous surveys conducted in 2006 and 2008.
The survey found that corruption in state government was the singular proposed issue about which the public was most concerned – garnering a greater percentage of “extremely concerned” than economic or budgetary issues. Sixty-one percent of respondents were extremely concerned with corruption and fifty-four percent with money in state politics (compared with fifty percent for the economy). Many others ranked corruption and money in state politics nearly as dire. This is unsurprising, given that Illinois is one of only five states without any contribution limits whatsoever.
Equally staggering is the pervasive belief that political corruption in Illinois is not isolated to a few “bad apples,” but rather infiltrates all levels of government. A combined fifty-eight percent of respondents replied that former Governor Blagojevich’s “unusual and extreme” case of corruption is either somewhat or strongly common among elected officials in Illinois, indicating that the appearance of corruption – a phenomenon as deleterious in many ways to the health of democracy as actual corruption – is alive and well in Illinois.
While the recent scandals have undoubtedly exacerbated the public’s perception of corruption, they are by no means the sole instigators. Indeed, forty-nine and forty-six percent of respondents found corruption and money in politics, respectively, just as serious in mid-2008. A report released earlier this month by political scientists at the University of Illinois at Chicago, which provides a lurid account of public corruption in Illinois since the 1860s, offers good reason. Since 1970 alone, 1,000 Illinois public officials and businessmen were convicted of public corruption.
The report points to a “[l]ack of a strong reform movement and notoriously weak campaign finance laws in Illinois” as the underlying reason for the perpetuation of corruption, and wisely recommends full public financing for all major state and local offices, including judicial campaigns, as a crucial reform to the existing political culture.
And Illinois citizens are clearly hungry for such reforms. Nearly ninety percent of respondents in the BRS poll said that their legislator’s support for legislation to reduce money in politics would be an important factor in their decision to re-elect him or her. Additionally, seventy-one percent support a law limiting the amount of money Democrat and Republican legislative leaders are able to contribute to other candidates, and sixty-five percent support additional use of public dollars to keep money out of politics.
Without meaningful campaign finance reforms in Illinois, its scars may never heal. Lawmakers should act swiftly to enact not only what the voice of the public requests, but also what is in the best interests of their state.