* 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.