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*** UPDATED x1 *** Miller columns: Avoiding another Blagojevich and sending off the Zephyr

Friday, Dec 10, 2010

* My Sun-Times column

The second anniversary of Rod Blagojevich’s arrest was this week. It passed mostly unnoticed. Maybe nobody felt like celebrating. I sure didn’t.

One of the few commemorations I saw was in Chicago Magazine, which ran an article titled “Why is Illinois so Corrupt?

There was the usual list of suspects, mainly focused on Chicago. For instance, there was Mayor Richard J. Daley’s institutionalizing the city’s corrupt systems while business and whites looked the other way in a grand, unspoken bargain for lucrative construction projects, jobs and keeping the blacks at bay.

There are as many theories as there are solutions. But what we do know for sure is that this entire state has long had a serious problem with corruption. It’s not just one party, and it’s certainly not just one region.

“If you’re out on a farm, there isn’t all that much to be corrupt about,” former Illinois Republican Party Chairman Gary MacDougal told Chicago Magazine.

Back in the mid 1970s, my father was a deputy sheriff in Iroquois County. Most Chicagoans probably don’t even know where that is, but it’s a huge, rural farm county with almost no people. Its northern border is only about 70 miles south of the city on I-57.

It may be geographically close to Chicago, but it’s a whole other world. Iroquois is and always has been one of the most Republican counties in the state. It was one of the few that went for that wacky Marylander Alan Keyes over Barack Obama in the 2004 U.S. Senate race, for instance.

Anyway, my dad says the sheriff back then had a company that leased the deputies’ police cars to the county. The sheriff had a company that sold police uniforms to his own officers. Every week, as dad tells the story, the sheriff would stop by the jail to pick up a big package of meat that the county ostensibly bought for the inmates.

So much for MacDougal’s theory.

OK, so it’s a given. But what do we do? Two years ago, I argued that the citizenry should try to remake the entire government right down to the local level by voting for a state constitutional convention. Change the structure, then maybe things might get better. The proposal lost by a huge margin.

The biggest reason Rod Blagojevich was re-elected four years ago was because a real effort wasn’t made to defeat him in the Democratic primary. The people who run the Democratic Party didn’t go after Blagojevich because the last time they primaried out a sitting Democratic governor, the Republicans took control of the office for the next 26 years. But that decision was a huge mistake. The Republicans were too weak in 2006 to make any sort of inroads. Illinois’ independent voters are as scared of the GOP as Iroquois County voters are of the Democrats.

What we witnessed this year with Toni Preckwinkle’s Democratic primary defeat of Todd Stroger was a rarity in Illinois. Cook County will have a far better, cleaner government because of her victory. We ought to learn from that.

We need far more primaries in this state. Legislative, ward and county board districts are drawn throughout Illinois to elect one party over the other, so running in the general election is pretty much useless, except for a few swing districts here and there.

New district boundaries will be drawn next year. So people who want things to change should start thinking soon about running for office against members of their own party. It won’t solve all our problems, but some new, honest blood certainly wouldn’t hurt.

* Meanwhile, the Zephyr, Galesburg’s alt weekly, has just published its final edition. Publisher Norm Winick is ill, so the decision was made to pull the plug on the paper. I’ve known Norm for a long time. He’s one of the good guys. Some of you may know his son, Ben, who is Gov. Pat Quinn’s House liaison. Norm’s wife Christine is a gem of a human being.

An editor at the paper asked me to help send off the Zephyr this week, and here is my contribution…

I understand why the Zephyr has to go, but I sure don’t have to like it. Five of my friends have died in the last year. Now this. The Zephyr may just be a newspaper to some, but it’s always been a friend of mine.

I’ve grown to love this paper since Norm Winick began publishing my weekly column almost 12 years ago. Its quirky eccentricities delighted me, its sharp graphics made it a pleasure to read, its 1995-era website amused me. But its reporting and its philosophy of being “the world’s first public access newspaper” kept me coming back week after week. You just never knew what you’d see.

The Zephyr is not only a local treasure, it’s a state treasure and Norm oughtta be canonized for keeping it going and keeping it relevant through the many lean years.

For instance, I read the first real, in-depth story on Congressman-elect Bobby Schilling right here on these pages. Mike Kroll wrote a fascinating profile of a long-shot candidate who firmly believed he would win the race. Just about everybody else thought the guy was a goofball dreamer, but the Zephyr gave Schilling respectful, evenhanded treatment when everybody in the political world was doing their best to ignore the guy.

Norm’s story this fall about how Gov. Pat Quinn’s payroll was smaller than his last four predecessors’ was a calm tonic in a political environment overly outraged that Quinn had given some of his staffers pay raises.

There’s also a personal angle for me. Befitting his “public access” bent, Norm gave me wide latitude as a writer. Back in 1999 I wrote a long piece about a trip to Cuba. The story contained some racy language, which is not something you usually see on these pages. Norm inserted a little warning at the beginning, but didn’t touch a single word of my copy. He’s a writer’s editor - a rarity in the publishing world. I’ll always love him for that.

I’ve had the privilege of appearing in these pages through three governors, beginning with George Ryan. We’ve gone through a lot together. Two convicted governors and a populist who can’t seem to get his arms around the job. I’ll miss sharing my thoughts with you week after bloody week.

People always love to complain about their local media outlets, but I’m betting that Galesburgians will miss this paper until they, too, go the way of the Zephyr. You’ll never again see anything else like this beautiful little publication. Norm and Mike and everyone else here made it what it is: A one of a kind beauty in a fast-food, prepackaged world.

I sense a great disturbance in The Force, like when the Death Star destroyed Alderaan. You’re not the only ones losing something valuable. The entire state is as well, whether mere mortals realize it or not.

The Zephyr is dead. Long live the Zephyr.

Hang in there, Norm.

*** UPDATE *** Norm passed away today. Rest in peace, brother.

- Posted by Rich Miller        

  1. - sylvia - Friday, Dec 10, 10 @ 11:33 am:

    If there wasn’t corruption on the grand scale,Capitolfax might not exist

  2. - Ersatz Edwin Eisendrath - Friday, Dec 10, 10 @ 11:53 am:

    “The biggest reason Rod Blagojevich was re-elected four years ago was because a real effort wasn’t made to defeat him in the Democratic primary”–What am I, chopped liver?

  3. - Rich Miller - Friday, Dec 10, 10 @ 11:54 am:


  4. - Yellow Dog Democrat - Friday, Dec 10, 10 @ 12:09 pm:

    Rich -

    Thanks for your excellent tribute to Norm and The Zephyr.

    Keeping a quality small newspaper afloat is no easy task, and becomes Herculean when you insist on the highest journalistic standards.

    Lots of small newspapers survive by kowtowing to their advertisers, or the dominant political party. The Zephyr floated above them all by putting the public’s interests first.

  5. - just sayin' - Friday, Dec 10, 10 @ 12:41 pm:

    Yeah, Gary MacDougal doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

    Some of the podunk counties have more corruption per capita than Cook, by far. Think “Dukes of Hazzard,” or that classic Burt Reynolds movie from the late 70’s, “Gator.” Or “Macon County Line.”

    But seriously, there is all kinds of stuff going on in some of the downstate counties. And if anything there is a lot less sunshine from the media and more of it goes unchecked. Of course none of this stops downstaters from throwing rocks in their glass house about Chicago.

  6. - wordslinger - Friday, Dec 10, 10 @ 12:50 pm:

    –“If you’re out on a farm, there isn’t all that much to be corrupt about,” former Illinois Republican Party Chairman Gary MacDougal told Chicago Magazine.–

    Yeah, human nature is determined by geography. The statement goes unchallenged by the writer, which is about all you need to know about the depth and insight of the article.

    When I was a a kid, they extended what is now I-88 from Sugar Grove to Dixon. Back then, that was about as rural and GOP as you could get. All the chatter among the grownups when they got together was which local GOP grand poohbah had made the biggest killing on buying land based on inside dope on the route.

    There were quite a few, but a local GOP state senator always got credit for making the most.

  7. - Angry Republican - Friday, Dec 10, 10 @ 12:51 pm:

    Rich, you are mistaken about Preckwinkle being a reformer; just ask Joe Berrios.

  8. - Rich Miller - Friday, Dec 10, 10 @ 1:03 pm:

    Yeah, AR. Take one endorsement and say she’s not a reformer. That’s completely absurd. Autocratic, even.

  9. - Way Way Down Here - Friday, Dec 10, 10 @ 1:10 pm:

    Gosh Rich, I’ve been trying to keep that Keyes over Obama factoid quiet for six years!

  10. - lakeview - Friday, Dec 10, 10 @ 1:15 pm:

    I have had this discussion with people from out of state about George Ryan. One of my friends in California was going on about how great he was because of his opposition to the death penalty, and I said that many here thought that closing death row was a tactic to divert attention from his corruption issues. My friend said that of course Ryan was corrupt, ha ha, because after all, he was a machine democrat from Chicago, ha ha.

    She was stunned to find out that he was a Republican from Kankankee, a pharmacist no less.

  11. - Oswego Willy - Friday, Dec 10, 10 @ 1:32 pm:

    Sorry to hear about your friend, Rich ….

    That was a nice tribute you wrote …

  12. - Rich Miller - Friday, Dec 10, 10 @ 1:35 pm:


  13. - Siriusly - Friday, Dec 10, 10 @ 1:38 pm:

    “The biggest reason Rod Blagojevich was re-elected four years ago was because a real effort wasn’t made to defeat him in the Democratic primary” - you’re right as usual of course.

    So while I find my self defending many of the Dems in our state and in the GA frequently, including Speaker Madigan, on this point I feel that they all bear some guilt in enabling Blago to continue. Sure Emil would not have been happy if someone mounted a real challenge, but what happened to the Lou Langs and Jack Franks in 2006. Those two sure were talking a lot about running.

  14. - Scooby - Friday, Dec 10, 10 @ 1:49 pm:

    Blagojevich was sitting on $20 million. There’s a difference between being gutsy and stupid.

  15. - Rich Miller - Friday, Dec 10, 10 @ 1:52 pm:

    It was half that before the primary, Scooby. 10 mil.

  16. - Scooby - Friday, Dec 10, 10 @ 2:26 pm:

    Are you sure? I haven’t looked it up, but I know he spent $27 million for the entire race and I’d be surprised if he raised $17 million of that in the final year. I’m not saying your wrong, it just strikes me as low.

  17. - Rich Miller - Friday, Dec 10, 10 @ 2:44 pm:

    Yes, Scooby, I looked it up.

  18. - DownstateDem31 - Friday, Dec 10, 10 @ 2:50 pm:

    Rich, nice, fitting tribute to Norm. I’ve read this page for several years (since getting into the political life in 2007), and I’ve known Norm since then working for a couple campaigns and being a student at Knox College.

    For all his quirks, he was one of the nicest guys you could have met, and someone who was fully committed to politics and fair journalism. Even though he had strong political beliefs, he never hesitated to give someone a fair shot.

    I learned much from Norm, and he and Chris have always treated me so well and have been so welcoming when I’ve been around Knox County. I learned of his diagnosis the week before Election Day, and it was not something I expected to hear. I’ll be at his funeral, but sure wish this funeral didn’t have to happen.

    Thanks Norm, for being so good to me. I always did appreciate it.

  19. - Been There - Friday, Dec 10, 10 @ 3:13 pm:

    ===Most Chicagoans probably don’t even know where that is===
    Is it somewhere near the buckle of the cornbelt?

  20. - Scooby - Friday, Dec 10, 10 @ 3:43 pm:

    Ok, I stand corrected. Thanks.

  21. - Paul Mangieri - Friday, Dec 10, 10 @ 6:47 pm:

    Norm Winick was the first to encourage me to run for political office. In 1996 when no Democrat had ever been elected State’s Attorney in the history of Knox County, Norm encouraging me to do so, quoting a line from the Godfather said it would be difficult, but not impossible. We won. That was Norm. He understood the realities. He knew the odds, but he never - ever refused to try simply because the deck was stacked against him. Norm was eternally optimistic. Norm was a great county party chairman who bridged every party divide. Norm was funny. Norm was engaging. Norm’s political instincts were second to none. Norm was a devoted husband and loving father. Norm was Norm and he will be missed. God bless you Norm, Chris, and Ben.

  22. - Just The Way It Is One - Friday, Dec 10, 10 @ 7:15 pm:

    The loss of Norm’s Zephyr is a loss for us all, as citizenry seeking to stay informed and in considering a well-balanced array of news, insight, and opinions, from a variety of sources. Likewise, it is a loss for a wider, more embellished dissemination of that precious freedom of speech/press we all so cherish (or SHOULD!) under the 1st Amendment. In that sense, the Zephyr’s departure is not only a sad day for those folks in the Galesburg area, but for all of Illinois, the U.S., and, indeed the world. A very moving and fitting tribute– and thanks for reminding us of this freedom we hold so dear and must forever cherish and never relinquish….!

  23. - anon - Friday, Dec 10, 10 @ 7:29 pm:

    My heart goes out to Ben and Chris at this difficult time. Thanks Rich for such a thoughtful tribute.

  24. - Publius - Friday, Dec 10, 10 @ 7:34 pm:

    I will miss Norm a lot. The few times I met him he was a nice guy and truly a good person. He had a smile that could brighten up a room and he was a good Democrat that loved the party more than most. His paper will be truly missed by those who read it and I am glad that I was able to meet and get to know him.

Sorry, comments for this post are now closed.

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