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Thursday, Feb. 24, 2005 02:28 pm

Pay-to-play government

One of the problems with applying “appearance of impropriety” rules to Illinois and Chicago politics is that most of the players are swimming in a small political pond.

We’re constantly treated to stories about how this or that political insider connected with Chicago Mayor Richard Daley is representing a company that just landed a sweet city contract. Look more closely, and you’ll probably find that every bidder had signed up an insider in the belief that his or her guy had more clout than the other guys, or that they wouldn’t have even reached first base without a preapproved pal on the payroll, or, more likely, because the insiders are just about the only ones who know how to navigate the city’s bureaucracy.

We all know that Gov. Rod Blagojevich enthusiastically and without apology raises millions of dollars from state contractors, board and commission members, state agency honchos, and so on. Absent the weeks of research this would entail, I’d bet a buck that several unsuccessful bidders were also generous givers or had retained their share of politically connected insiders to make their case.

As big as Illinois and Chicago are, the political world here is comparatively tiny. Everyone knows everyone in the game, and, for the most part, they are the only ones playing that game.

Without making any excuses for Blagojevich’s obvious excesses and a handful of highly questionable deals, this is one reason the governor is failing so badly at upholding his endlessly repeated oath to end business as usual in Illinois and create a “new way.”

It’s pretty nearly impossible to run a government — any government, anywhere — without making somebody a big pile of money. And it’s usually the same people making that money year after year because they’re the ones with either the experience and know-how to win the contracts or the wherewithal to get the job done. And that wealthy tribe’s long-standing custom is to express its gratitude by writing large campaign checks.

As a practical matter, the governor probably can’t stop using the expertise and abilities of the people who know how to get things done.

Blagojevich can, however, do what Daley has done and prevent his campaign from profiting from the system he so often says he wants to reform.

Last week, the governor refused to follow Daley’s lead and support one of two bills in the General Assembly that would ban contributions from state contractors and vendors. But he went on to say that he was considering a proposal to ban campaign contributions from lobbyists to legislators, constitutional officers, and candidates.

It wasn’t difficult to see what was really going on here. He might as well have just warned the Legislature: “Keep messing with me on this issue, and I’ll use my bully pulpit to exercise the ‘nuclear’ option.”

This is a pretty darned good pivot on the governor’s part. He provides himself political cover for not immediately following Daley’s lead while buttressing his reputation as a reformer.

More important, though, it allows him to get in front of the legislative proposals that are targeted directly at him and, at the same time, stop those same bills dead in their tracks. “I offered to quit taking contractor money, but they wouldn’t clean up their own houses,” the governor could say after his proposals are buried in a legislative purgatory and he opposes whatever is left.

Blagojevich knows full well that editorial boards throughout the state will suck up this lobbyist-contribution ban as if it’s nectar from the gods. As a result, legislators, who receive millions of dollars from companies and individuals who register as statehouse lobbyists every year, will likely flee those proposed contractor-contribution bans as if they carry the avian flu virus because there’s no way they want the governor using every possible opportunity to loudly beat them about the skulls with this lobbyist-contribution ban.

Never mind that if the governor was truly interested in proving his reform credentials, he would voluntarily issue an executive order banning the contractor and vendor contributions for himself and then use his heroic action to push for even tougher legislative reforms. Rather, he seems more interested in attaching the most internecine of poisonous pills he can dream up to forestall the progress of a measure that exposes gaping holes in his own ethics armor — and simultaneously give himself some talking points whenever the subject is broached by reporters and editorial boards.  

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