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Columnist
Cynics must remember not all politicians are crooks, even in Illinois
By Burt Constable | Daily Herald Columnist

U.S. Sen. Paul Simon stood up for ethics and political reform.

 

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Paul Simon answers questions from the press after speaking at the College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn. The late politician managed to serve without scandal - more than many other Illinois elected officials can say.

 

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Published: 8/3/2010 12:02 AM

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Today could be the day a jury decides if our 40th governor is guilty of 24 felony corruption counts. Meanwhile, our 39th governor continues to pass time in a federal penitentiary because the last jury determined he was a crook. If convicted, Rod Blagojevich mostly likely will head to prison before George Ryan's expected release date of July 4, 2013. If that happens, Illinois would have more governors in the Big House than we would in the governor's mansion.

Perhaps that is why many Illinois observers shrug off Blagojevich's blatant grubbing for money while working as our public servant.

"Everybody does it, but only a few politicians are unlucky enough to get caught," the people say.

"There is something to the people's complaints," admits David Yepsen, director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, as he bemoans the "disproportionate number" of crooks in our state. A 2009 University of Illinois at Chicago study found that 1,000 Illinois public officials and their cohorts have been convicted of corruption just since 1970.

Our history fuels cynicism, as does our current situation. Blagojevich is a 53-year-old Democrat who quickly rose through the ranks. Ryan, now 76, is an old guard Republican who had been a party fixture for decades. Illinois has a history of politicians using public service as a steppingstone to federal prison. We've had too many shoe boxes full of cash and too many politicians bankrupt of ethics.

But it doesn't have to be that way.

I was reminded of that during a chat with Mike Lawrence at a recent gala for the Illinois chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. A longtime newspaper political reporter and columnist, Lawrence spent a decade as press secretary and senior policy adviser for Illinois Gov. Jim Edgar, a Republican. Then Lawrence joined, and later served as director of, the public policy institute founded by Paul Simon, our former U.S. senator, who was a Democrat.

While not perfect, Simon and Edgar looked at public service as an opportunity to serve the public instead of a way to line their pockets and help out cronies, Lawrence argues.

Edgar, 64, now serves as a fellow with the Institute of Government and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois. Simon, who died in 2003 at the age of 75, was elected to the Illinois House when he was just 25, and later served as a five-term congressman and two-term senator before founding the institute that bears his name.

Simon's trademark bow tie became such a symbol of honesty and integrity that other politicians and pundits often embrace the look.

The mission of his institute (www.paulsimoninstitute.org) is to foster "ethical conduct in government" and "opportunity and fair treatment for citizens in America and throughout the world" while "promoting responsible citizenship for all Americans - but particularly for young Americans."

Illinois high school and college students attending the institute's Youth Government Day were asked if they wanted to stay in the state.

"The vast majority want to get out of here," Yepsen says. "Illinois faces a grim future if this doesn't change."

But sometimes, growing up with a steady diet of corruption in the news can give young people an appetite for reform. It's worth noting that Simon won his Senate seat from Chuck Percy, who won it from Paul Douglas, and all three men had carved out reputations as straight-shooters who looked at political office as a way to give back to the community.

Illinois does have plenty of honest, hardworking public officials. Candidates, voters and the media simply need to aim higher than thinking an acquittal is something we want in a public servant.

"There are a lot of good people out there," Yepsen says, suggesting our current embarrassments might inspire the kind of ethical outrage that leads to better candidates. "There is nothing better than someone being mad enough to run for public office. It's just keeping them on task once they get there."