Here in Illinois, we talk about corruption a lot. As Jon Stewart pointed out when our last governor was arrested, Illinois governors have a better chance of going to prison than most murderers, with 3 of the last 7 ending up in prison … and now, with Blagojevich’s arrest, that makes 4 of 8 so – chances of going to jail: 50% as an Illinois governor, 48% as a murderer (http://www.thedailyshow.com/watch/wed-de
To digress into the personal: I moved here in the mid-eighties from Vermont. My parents were living in Vermont when I was old enough to register to vote for my first presidential election. Since I was going to school not too far away, I registered to vote in Vermont. This meant I went down to the courthouse, raised my hand, and took a “Freeman’s Oath” (despite the fact that I am clearly not male) swearing that I would vote as a free and independent person. (Apparently this oath is still in effect: from the Vermont Secretary of State’s website, “You can vote in Vermont ONLY if you: 1. are a citizen of the United States; 2. Are a resident of Vermont and a resident of the town in which you apply to be added to the checklist; 3. take, or have previously taken, the Voter's Oath (formerly called the "Freeman's Oath"); and 4. are 18 years of age or older (or will be eighteen on or before the day of election). http://www.vermont-elections.org/electio
Here in Illinois, we know corruption when we see it. After all, watching public official after public official go to trial and get convicted of various crimes related to corruption does give one an education. The things our public officials seem to have thought were normal business practices are astonishing. But everyone does these things, was often their defense, and they were surprised when the jury didn’t buy that justification for their own chosen criminal endeavors. It is amazing, after the trials we have had in the last five years alone, to find a public official who is surprised that getting cash gifts from anyone – especially his or her employees – is OK, a part of doing business, just part of life. (for example, see http://blogs.chicagotribune.com/news_col
Then there is the appearance of corruption. What is that? Many people assume that Joe Berrios is corrupt. But wait, he has never been indicted of anything, as far as I know. Is this an unfair assumption? Joe is the Chairman of the Cook County Democratic Party (right there, an assumption might be made without looking further, but let’s assume that pay-to-play has not been an integral part of Cook County Democratic politics for the moment). He also sits on the Cook County Board of Review, which handles tax assessment appeals. He is currently running to be the Assessor for Cook County. His day job is as a state lobbyist, including for some video poker clients. Michael Madigan is the Speaker of the House in the Illinois General Assembly. He is also Chairman of the Illinois Democratic Party. His day job is as a lawyer, with the firm Madigan and Getzendanner. The Tribune notes that the firm is the go-to firm for property tax appeals (http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/local/c
And then there is the corruption implied but not proven. Not only not proven, but with wide gaping holes in the narrative of implied corruption. Today’s Tribune (April 24, 2010) ran a lovely headline about the failure of the Giannoulias’ family bank: BANK FAILURE A NAIL IN GIANNOULIAS BID. Alexi Giannoulias, currently the State Treasurer, is running for the US Senate (yes, indeed, that same seat that Mr. Obama once held, the one that former governor Blagojevich got in trouble over the appointment of a replacement once the President had resigned in order to … you know, be President of the United States). The Tribune is completely in the tank for Mark Kirk, Giannoulias’ Republican opponent (see various entries at Ellen’s Illinois Tenth Congressional District Blog http://ellenofthetenth.blogspot.com/: the 10th is the home of Kirk’s congressional seat, and Ellen has been following his exploits for years. Ellen and Carl have done a nice job of staying on top of the hypocrisy of both the Sun-Times and the Tribune on this matter). A sidenote: both papers are attempting to emerge from bankruptcy, and in the case of the Sun-Times, some of their financial troubles had to do with the mismanagement and financial improprieties of Conrad Black, now in prison for criminal fraud – coincidentally, put there by the same prosecutorial team now going after Blagojevich - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conrad_Blac
There is no there there. The Tribune Company and the Sun-Times should take a deep breath, and get over it. Or else they should start reporting their stories against Alexi Giannoulias as in-kind contributions to the Kirk campaign.
Here in Illinois, we have another election in less than a month – 20 days or so, actually. Wait, you say – didn’t you just have an election? Why, yes, yes, we did. We had a special congressional election less than a year ago to fill the seat vacated by Rahm Emanuel when he went to work for the President. And now we are engaged in the first election of 2010; we’ll have another in November – the general – and we’ll turn around and have another election in February of 2011 for city offices. Unless, of course, we manage to get the primaries moved to a reasonable month – say, May or June – so we don’t have to canvass in the coldest month of the winter.
Really, the February primaries are all about suppressing voter turnout – it’s a incumbent protection racket. It was sold as a critical way to help Barack Obama win the presidential primaries … although in the end, it was the states who voted later who were more critical. And now we’re stuck. Both irrelevant and freezing our buns off. We vote for everyone in Illinois. Governor, yes. Lieutenant Governor (the guy who waits for the governor to be indicted so he can take over in a crisis), Comptroller, Treasurer, down to Metropolitan Water Reclamation District (they deal with sewage and storm water and have a huge budget), county government, assessor, board of review, and everyone’s favorite … judges. Oh the poor judges: as candidates they’re the most disadvantaged. They have to be careful who they take money from: they have to remain impartial. They can’t express opinions: because they have to remain impartial. Most people have no idea if they’re competent, let alone if they’ll be good as a judge. Most people spend their lives hoping they will never have to find out if a judge is competent or not through personal experience. Bar associations rate them … but who carries the bar association rankings into the booth with them?
We vote for everyone in Illinois. Governor, yes. Lieutenant Governor (the guy who waits for the governor to be indicted so he can take over in a crisis), Comptroller, Treasurer, down to Metropolitan Water Reclamation District (they deal with sewage and storm water and have a huge budget), county government, assessor, board of review, and everyone’s favorite … judges. Oh the poor judges: as candidates they’re the most disadvantaged. They have to be careful who they take money from: they have to remain impartial. They can’t express opinions: because they have to remain impartial. Most people have no idea if they’re competent, let alone if they’ll be good as a judge. Most people spend their lives hoping they will never have to find out if a judge is competent or not through personal experience. Bar associations rate them … but who carries the bar association rankings into the booth with them?
So¸ because I belong to several groups that are politically minded and like to meet candidates, I have seen and listened to a lot of candidates over the last few months. We have candidates all over the place: everyone is running. This is the result of two events that completely upset the applecart of power and privilege: 1) the election of Barack Obama and the departure of politicians to Washington to serve with him, and 2) the indictment and subsequent impeachment of the Governor. The Regular Dems are trying hard to fill the vacancies with their favored candidates; the Republicans are trying to get their act together long enough to win some of those seats away from the Dems; third parties are trying to take advantage of the chaos to win seats (a pox on both their houses!); and those of us trying to save the Democratic Party from itself are trying to win a few seats ourselves. There are challengers all over the place. It’s really quite exciting. And in the middle of the most exciting elections in recent Illinois history: most voters don’t care. They are too cold, too snowed in, too tired of politics, too disillusioned by corruption, too dispirited by the never-changing, never-solved, always ongoing budget crisis faced by this state (and many others), too many elections in too short of a time … all of these add up to a profound apathy and dismay (what, we have to vote? Again? Please tell me there are no judges on the ballot? …. Um, no, we do have to vote for judges, so sorry).
Most people just want it all to go away: they do not want to be bothered with getting out and meeting the candidates in person; they will make their decisions based on a mailer or two, or an ad or two, or will just vote for the incumbent, or in some places they will just vote for whomever their precinct captain tells them to vote for. While the influence of ward bosses are diminishing due to the Shakman decree which makes patronage hiring much more difficult here in Chicago (oh, as well as the occasional federal prosecutor who notices when city or county workers are used for campaign work), there are some areas where the Regulars still have a great deal of control. That includes the “Liberal Lakefront” where the “Machine” espouses much more progressive values … but gets upset when someone challenges the primacy of the “family.” So why should people bother? They don’t have time to meet candidates: they have to work, they have to have family time, they have to clean the house, they have to watch TV to decompress, they have to feel guilty about not exercising – elections are one more thing to feel bad about not participating in fully.
And that’s too bad, actually. It’s really not that hard to meet candidates. Candidates are dying to meet voters, to be allowed to tell you why they are wonderful and why their opponents are not as wonderful as they are. They like talking about the issues (and frankly, if they don’t talk about the issues, that’s a sign that it’s just ego, no substance … and who does that remind us of?) Candidates will contact any group that shows any remote interest in meeting with them, and demand to be invited. Participatory democracy is really quite easy, it turns out. Ask and they will come. They will show up for coffees in your house, they will show up for a meeting of your group even if you put together the group yesterday. There are a number of groups that do the work of inviting candidates to come speak: it just requires a little attention to find one near you and go. Anywhere there are voters candidates will go.
What is the advantage of meeting candidates in person? Well, hearing them speak gives you some clue as to how well they will perform in a legislature: can they speak persuasively? Do they make sense? How deep is their commitment to the issues you care about?
I don’t need the barrage of ads coming in the next two weeks to inform me about the candidates: I know who I’m voting for in the majority of races because I’ve heard the candidates speak in person. I even know one or two of the judges I’ll be voting for. Unfortunately for me, I’m still undecided in the big race – US Senate – even though I’ve heard four of the five candidates who are running. Pluses and minuses on all of them …. though I have to admit, two of the five were eliminated based on their speaking (dull for the one, crazy for the other …). A forum on TV the other night left me in much the same place: I like all three of the remaining candidates, and find things about each that are truly annoying. No clear favorite wins. So if you are a voter in Illinois and you want “change” – throw the bastards out, they’re all evil – how do you know who to vote for if you haven’t been paying attention? Do you vote for all Republicans because they’re out of power now? But they’re the ones who had the bright idea to run Alan Keyes against Barack Obama (and that was a choice: they disqualified the candidate who won the primary (Jack! Ryan) based on the accusations of marital difficulties that came out when his divorce papers were made public, and picked Alan Keyes [yes, THAT Alan Keyes, the one who actually lives in Maryland and is totally nuts] to replace Jack!), and their last governor is now sitting in a federal prison. Do you vote for an independent party? Do they really win? Is that throwing away your vote, or making a strong protest? And then there are the Democrats …. Which ones are “good,” and which ones are corrupt? Can we really tell? How many people will know which Democrat is the reform Democrat and which is the president of the Cook County Democratic Party when they vote for the Cook County Assessor?
So if you are a voter in Illinois and you want “change” – throw the bastards out, they’re all evil – how do you know who to vote for if you haven’t been paying attention? Do you vote for all Republicans because they’re out of power now? But they’re the ones who had the bright idea to run Alan Keyes against Barack Obama (and that was a choice: they disqualified the candidate who won the primary (Jack! Ryan) based on the accusations of marital difficulties that came out when his divorce papers were made public, and picked Alan Keyes [yes, THAT Alan Keyes, the one who actually lives in Maryland and is totally nuts] to replace Jack!), and their last governor is now sitting in a federal prison. Do you vote for an independent party? Do they really win? Is that throwing away your vote, or making a strong protest? And then there are the Democrats …. Which ones are “good,” and which ones are corrupt? Can we really tell? How many people will know which Democrat is the reform Democrat and which is the president of the Cook County Democratic Party when they vote for the Cook County Assessor?
Really, we need a bright talent to lead us out of the wilderness. That means that we need to build up the farm team – elect bright, committed, and talented people in down ballot races. To know who the bright, committed, talented people are you have to pay attention. Those of us who do pay attention seem to be political geeks, different from the rest of the electorate. Unfortunately for us, the reporters who cover politics – who feed our geekdom – are disinterested in politics itself, and only interested in horse races, in the obvious, in repeating right-wing talking points without any critique. So the way the political geeks dealt with that problem was on the internets, where we can talk to each other and learn what’s really going on, and read and write a divergence of political analysis that has nothing to do with conventional wisdom out of Washington.
You want an example? Here in Illinois we have an election coming up in a few weeks, an election that will be about change no matter how the voters vote – because so many offices are open seats, new people will be filling them. Here you have an electorate that is disgusted straight on down: from the inability of the State of Illinois to balance the budget and pay its bills, to the stench of corruption that has come down from the governor’s office down to City of Chicago Administration, to the anger at Cook County government over sales taxes, to anger at the Mayor over the parking meter deal (which is compounded if you drive a car by excessive parking ticket enforcement and more speed traps than ever before in the City – oh, and lights that flash at you as you go through intersections as pictures are taken of your car so that yet another ticket may be given out; and we won’t even go into the rising cost of having a city sticker), to disgust at the ever-revolving rounds of indictments (as well as disgust that there aren’t more indictments: what are we waiting for, Mr. Fitzgerald?).
So here is an election: an opportunity for change. Capitalize on the electorate’s anger, and there could be major changes. Is the media in Illinois talking about it? Discussing the issues (if a sales tax isn’t the right way for Cook County to raise revenue, what is? How exactly is the State supposed to get out of this cycle of budget crisis?), giving the voters something to think about as they make their decisions, discussing the races and the candidates and letting people know their options? No. There has been a disgraceful lack of coverage. Even for the Cook County Board race, where a ton of voters dislike the current president exceeding and are dying to vote him out – there’s barely been any coverage. How is the average voter supposed to know which of the three other people running against him makes the most sense? No, clearly they’re just supposed to vote for the guy with the Irish name, because why would we vote on the issues?
This is why candidates are so desperate to come and speak to anyone. They can’t get media attention, very few voters pay attention, so they’re willing to go anywhere there might be an audience. This is why they knock on doors, call you on the phone, send you mailings: they are trying to get attention to their issues, their race, their candidacy. How can you vote for them if you don’t know they are running?
Candidates are the bravest people I know. What a completely thankless job that is: put yourself out there, learn the issues that matter in your district for your particular race, try to raise money from all your friends and family and mere acquaintances, spend time making phone calls constantly, knock on doors … and try to get people to pay attention to you and your campaign. Try to convince people that yes, indeed, you are a viable candidate with an actual plan to win. Have nightmares whether the powers that be are going to arrange to have your kneecaps broken in a “mugging.”
Of the candidates I’ve seen … I like the ones that sound like real Democrats the best, the ones who know what the issues are and have a plan to address it, the ones who know what the office they are running for actually does, and what needs to change to make it better. If someone spouts a Republican talking point in a Democratic primary, I tune out instantly (so sorry, Mr. O’Brien, yelling “tax and spend” at me like a Republican does not make me confident in your fiduciary responsibility). Some experience is good, though it doesn’t always matter in what – but if the candidate can convince me how its relevant to the office they seek, all the better. I like the ones who get that this whole enterprise is about people: whether its labor, businesses run by real people, the water we drink and play in, the air we breathe, the health care we don’t receive … the things that kill us, the things that make us thrive. We need jobs, yes, but we also need health care – and all of us need health care, not just the men , not just the children – and yes, women’s health care is way more complicated but there it is. You cannot legislate it away. We need to be protected from terrorism, yes, but we also need our own freedom, our privacy, our right to the privacy of our associations, our bodies, our thoughts, our religious (or not) beliefs.
Most of all, we need to be able to hold up our heads as Americans. To me, that means we don’t act like we’re scared to death of every little failed terrorism plot, we don’t bargain away our freedom and our morality to “protect” us from imaginary enemies, we don’t prosecute wars against people that never harmed us … and we spend our capitol on our own infrastructure, on taking care of our people, on helping other people (not bombing them).
Of course, as a Democrat, I too would like to be able to hold up my head. Somehow that’s not happening these days: I’m proud of my compatriots, the fighters, the activists, the grassroots, the bloggers, the ones who are clear on why we’re working so hard to achieve change. I am not proud of those we have worked so hard to elect. As Jon Stewart said, we should lower the bar of expectations to the ground for Democrats … and then watch them trip over it. What is it with these people? What is about a “change” election where the people in large numbers come out and say “business as usual isn’t working: change it!” and they said “oh, we can’t really do that, there isn’t the political will.” What do you mean? Are all of you suicidal? It’s not that hard: stop giving away the store to the banksters, and pass simple health care reform that we can all understand – try Medicare for all, try single payer, try anything – just don’t make it an incomprehensible give away to the health insurance companies. Guess what , Congress: NO ONE LIKES INSURANCE COMPANIES: and anyone who tells you people do RECIEVES A CHECK FROM THEM.