The corruption of Illinois politics is legendary. Those familiar with the gusty blasts of Chicago often assume its famous nickname, The Windy City, came about because of the weather. In actuality, the term was popularized in the mid-19th Century by Charles A. Dana, editor of the New York Sun, who made Op-Ed hay of Chicago’s reputation as a haven for lawmakers full of hot air.
During the Prohibition Era, renowned gangster Al Capone cynically characterized Chicago election patterns as such: “Vote early – and vote often.” This storied slogan, repeated for nearly a century, encompasses whispers of electoral fraud that permeate the administrations of mayors such as William Hale Thompson, Richard J. Daley, son Richard M. and current Chicago executive, Rahm Emanuel. Many of the city’s leaders have walked the finest line between elected official and mob boss.
But it’s not just the municipality of Chicago tarred and feathered with a corrupt reputation. Four of the state’s last seven governors have gone to prison – and the effort is completely bipartisan. In 2011, Illinois sent Democrat Rod Blagojevich to the clink for attempting to sell or trade former Senator Barack Obama’s vacated seat. He was caught brazenly brokering deals via FBI wiretap. Even in a state renowned for scandal, this was a remarkably embarrassing turn of events.
Chicago natives and residents have mostly tolerated life as the butt of corruption jokes. Historically we’ve even laughed along, because in humor, there is truth. And lightheartedness comes easy when your state is the home of esteemed Presidents (Lincoln, Obama), Generals (Ulysses S. Grant) poets (Carl Sandburg, Shel Silverstein) and social reformers (Jane Addams). It also doesn’t hurt when you have the third largest American city within your borders, a metropolis famous for its art, architecture, bounteous water supply and well-planned public park system.
In times of feast, it’s fair to say we haven’t much minded Illinois’ corrupt reputation. The long decades of tolerance give the lie to any protest. However, there’s not much city or state feasting going on in 2016. Google the search term, “Chicago financial shape” today and these are the first three stories you’ll encounter:
Illinois in Worst-Ever Financial Shape (Crain’s)
15 of Illinois’ School Districts in the Worst Financial Shape (Huffington Post)
The state of Illinois has been running (term used loosely) without a budget for nearly a year. This truth coincides with the January 2015 swearing-in of Republican Bruce Rauner as Governor. The businessman and first-time officeholder has been disastrous for the Land of Lincoln in just about every way. The website IllinoisPolicy.org does a brilliant job of detailing the troubles that in fairness, began long before Rauner arrived. However in the absence of a plan to pay the bills while resolving the state’s considerable structural problems, this is where we stand:
Illinois has “the worst credit rating of any state in the country, a $4 billion budget shortfall and more than $7 billion in unpaid bills. The Mercatus Center at George Mason University currently ranks Illinois 50th in the nation for fiscal solvency, a measure for how well (or poorly) a state can meet its spending obligations.”
The effect on social services and public education has been particularly devastating. Last week, the Tribune News Service published an article entitled, Illinois Risks Brain Drain as University Students Look Elsewhere. The story read in part:
“Public colleges haven’t received state aid for the year that started July 1 as Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner and Democratic lawmakers fight over a budget. The strain has spurred colleges to furlough staff and cancel projects. State scholarships for low-income students haven’t been paid.”
As it happens, I’m a new adjunct faculty member at Northeastern Illinois University this term, teaching a 300-level liberal arts course on digital marketing and branding. Though I’ve found the experience tremendously rewarding, I’ve also had a front row seat to watch our higher educational system crash and burn in slow motion. Non-teaching staff has been furloughed, the campus bookstore closed and I’ve fielded heartbreaking questions from students who want to know if we’ll be able to finish the class (yes, even if it’s at my dining room table). With NEIU’s operational funding guaranteed only through the end of 2016, and an intransigent Governor who seems impervious to the suffering of his constituents, no one knows what happens next.
Earlier this month, Democratic lawmakers in the state approved a gap funding measure to help address the dire circumstances faced by education and social services. But naturally Governor Rauner is expected to veto it. And in a move almost universally applauded by state residents, Illinois Comptroller Leslie Munger announced last week that Illinois Officeholders Will Go Without Pay until State Passes Budget. But Rauner didn’t run for the paycheck. The billionaire is holding out for “’structural reforms’ such as changes in collective bargaining.” In other words, he’ll bring every one of us to our knees as a union-busting exercise. He is Scott Walker on a more dangerous iteration of public sector-savaging steroids.
People and companies are fleeing the state. Morale and optimism are supremely low. How long can one negligent one percenter be allowed to hold the state hostage to a “pro-business” agenda that is destroying the entire economy? I think my part-time assistant put it best when she submitted notes for this post, which concluded: “Man, researching this article really set me on fire. This state is full of shit. I want out.”