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Will Illinois gain luster or lose it if Governor Blagojevich is booted out of office? State pride is tied up in the state's political crisis, and state pride will take a beating if Blago somehow serves out his term.
Consider the question posed on NPR's Talk of the Nation the day after the Blago scandal blew. NPR political editor Ken Rudin asked the audience which state had lost the most sitting governors to corruption charges over the past 20 or 30 years. Early callers named the usual suspects -- New Jersey, Louisiana, Illinois.
But Rudin had asked a trick question. The right answer was Arizona -- where Evan Mecham was impeached and removed in 1988 and Fife Symington resigned in 1997 after he was convicted of bank fraud. Here in Illinois, Otto Kerner, Dan Walker, and George Ryan all served out their terms and went to prison later. Political corruption at the highest levels is a serious competition, and with Blagojevich we've finally got a dog in that fight.
Ignoring Arizona, Jacob Weisberg, the editor of Slate and a Chicago native, wore his heart on his sleeve when he posted a piece titled "Political Corruption Smackdown / Which state is the most crooked -- Illinois or Louisiana?" Weisberg recognized that the "unmasking" of our governor "as a kleptocrat of Paraguayan proportion" finally gave Illinois "a real chance —its first in more than a generation — to defeat Louisiana in the NCAA finals of American political corruption."
Weisberg allowed that the Corporate Crime Reporter put Louisiana first in the nation for the period from 1997 to 2006 with 7.67 federal corruption convictions per 100,000 residents. Illinois, though its absolute numbers were bigger, managed only a 4.68 convictions ratio to finish "an embarrassing sixth."
What's more, Louisiana's culture of corruption was a lot more "flamboyant and shameless" than ours. But now, thanks to Rod and Patti, "Illinois' corruption has gone carnival." Maybe he was just giving Chicago a hometown discount, but Weisberg concluded with the prediction that "it's going to be a close contest again this year, but I'm betting on the Fighting Illini to claim the national championship."
And we want that, don't we? We don't want to be second, let alone sixth.
Sunday's New York Times noted that "bloggers from competing hotbeds of wrongdoing" had responded to Illinois' blagomania by asserting their own claims "that theirs were the worst officials in the land, thank you." So the Times looked at the subject every which way, ran some numbers, cooked up some graphs, and did its level best to make the subject boring.
Over the past decade:
Sheer number of public officials convicted in federal courts of corruption -- Florida first with 824; Illinois seventh with 502.
Convictions per capita: the District of Columbia first with 66.9 per million residents per year. If you don't count DC (and the Virgin Islands and Guam), North Dakota first with 8.3; Illinois 22nd with 4.0.
A survey of journalists!!! Rhode Island first, Louisiana second, Illinois tenth.
The problem with Illinois, the Times suggested, is that it can't shake its identification with "famously principled political figures" like Abraham Lincoln and Paul Simon. The Adlai Stevensons didn't help either.
The Times refused to North Dakota seriously, despite the numbers. USA Today had been first out of the box with a state-by-state corruption survey, and when North Dakota wound up on top it refused to commit to its own numbers. "Illinois is not even close to the nation's most-corrupt state," said USA Today. "North Dakota, it turns out, may hold that distinction instead."
Isn't North Dakota too cold for crime? Even Fargo was set in Minnesota.