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Wednesday, Dec. 17, 2008 01:36 am

No, it’s not like this everywhere

When will Illinois stop making excuses for bad behavior?

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I should’ve known there was something sick about this state. After all, this is Illinois; it isn’t Wellinois. Ever since I moved here, two phrases have grated on my ears like fingernails on a chalkboard. One is, “But that’s the way we’ve always done it.” The other is its kissing cousin, “Anyway, it’s like that everywhere!”

Neither one of these axioms has been adopted as the official state motto, but I bet that’s just because they split the vote and inadvertently allowed that third-party contender, “State Sovereignty, National Union,” to sneak in and win. I can’t count how many times I’ve heard people use this salt-and-pepper set of excuses to rationalize thoughtless, thuggish behavior. Attorney Sheldon Sorosky said as much last week when he told reporters that his client Gov. Rod Blagojevich — caught on tape scheming to auction off President-elect Barack Obama’s U.S. Senate seat, along with government contracts, state aid, his soul and basically everything but his own offspring — had done nothing wrong. “A lot of this is just politics,” Sorosky said.

You know, just the way we’ve always done it. Like they do everywhere.

And Sorosky’s probably correct: pay-to-play probably is the way Illinois has always done it. This state’s sorry record of indicted governors/former governors has been incessantly recited in every medium with a mic since Blago’s arrest on Dec. 9. Being from Texas and Alaska, I still can’t wrap my mind around it: What is it? Four out of the past eight? Seriously?

An enterprising reporter in the Washington Bureau of the Chicago Tribune — apparently hoping to get in on some of the scandal fun — unearthed a bit of history that shows Obama was not the first Illinois senator whose seat was for sale. William Lorimer, aka the “blond boss” of Chicago, was voted out of the Senate after an investigation revealed that he had obtained his seat through bribery. Lorimer’s ouster occurred in 1912, when choosing a U.S. senator was considered above the average citizen’s pay grade and thus left to the experts — the state legislators. Historical accounts focus on the admission of one legislator who accepted $1,000 to vote for Lorimer. It’s not sexy by today’s standards, but Lorimer’s tale captures Illinois politicians paying and playing on both ends. And it was enough to inspire Congress to ratify the 17th Amendment, giving the people the privilege of choosing their U.S. senators.

Of course, that same amendment contained a clause allowing a governor to fill any vacant Senate seat. Which brings us full circle to our scandal du jour.

So I’ll give you that: yes, you have always done it this way. But I won’t agree that “it’s like that everywhere.” Sure, I saw the recent study on corruption that ranked Illinois 18th (and my beloved Alaska #1). But look at the methodology: It’s based on the number of public officials per capita convicted. All that proves to me is that Alaska has more and better lawyers.

A more relevant question is: convicted of what? Unless you watch Jay Leno on The Tonight Show, you probably missed news of a nearby mayor who recently pleaded guilty to some sort of lewd behavior for, er, how shall I put this . . . “dancing” nude in his living room picture window (I’m not making this up). Public officials accused of bawdy or randy behavior, or plagued by some substance addiction, bring shame and embarrassment upon their own family, but they don’t inflict damage on the citizenry en masse. Blago’s brutal style of pay-to-play makes me jealous of states whose leaders just have a zipper problem.

What Blagojevich has been caught doing violates the law and the public trust, not to mention the quota for the use of “bleeps.” If the events of the past few weeks proved nothing else, they should show all of Illinois that no, it’s not like this everywhere else. In fact, I doubt that it’s like this anywhere else. And so what if it is? Let’s stop it here.

Contact Dusty Rhodes at drhodes@illinoistimes.com.

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