Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Illinois Politics, Makin' Us Proud!

Whoo! Illinois, baby!

The news broke today that our illustrious governor, Rod Blagojevich, was arrested in a corruption investigation. This was surprising news - surprising that it took this long. When I first moved to Chicago over two years ago, the very first day there was a news report about the governor being investigated for corruption. In the meantime, there have been other high-profile arrests and convictions for people very close to Blogo, and it seemed like every couple weeks new details broke about an investigation into an "unnamed public official" who could only have been the governor. So yeah, Blogo getting arrested for corruption - it's news along the lines of "water is wet" and "the sun rises in the east". All this story needs now is the typical "This isn't the Rod Blagojevich I thought I knew" speech from Th'Obama for some closure.

I realize this may be surprising to those who don't know the history of Illinois politics in general and Chicago in particular, but the government here is a truly spectacular blend of corruption and incompetence. Consider what the local political stories have been in just the past few weeks:

1) Our illustrious governor Blagojevich and truly wonderful senator Durbin [/sarcasm] leading the charge for President Bush to commute the sentence of former governor George Ryan. Why is Ryan in jail? Corruption, of course. What got him caught was an investigation into the sale of commercial driving licenses - as secretary of state, he sold them to trucking companies so they could distribute them to whomever they pleased. When one of the illegal truckers caused an accident that killed a family, the trail eventually was traced to then-governor Ryan (uncovering a lot of other stuff along the way, of course).

So Blogo has been pushing for him to be pardoned - not in any way hoping to set a precedent of leniency for corrupt governors, of course. Durbin, of course, once famously on the Senate floor accused American soldiers of being worse than Nazis, Stalin-era Communists, and the Khmer Rouge based on the unsubstantiated accusations (since shown to be entirely false) of terrorists. So naturally, when a governor has been shown beyond any doubt to be guilty of incredible corruption that actually killed, he pushes for extreme leniency (Ryan has served less than 15% of his sentence). Gotta have priorities, I guess.

2) The Cook County budget fiasco. Cook County recently raised sales taxes to the highest in the country - over 11% in some parts, over 10% everywhere. This was because of a massive budget shortfall, and in their infinite wisdom they decided that raising taxes again was the best way to make ends meet in a slowing economy. In other words, all the foresight of a goldfish. Anyway, the tax hike was supposed to raise around $460m that they needed. Their calculations assumed that spending habits would not change at all - again, total brilliance - so obviously they fell short, but still brought in an extra $380m or so, at the cost of driving off some business long-term. Stupid trade, but whatever.

Anyway, now comes the news that the $380m they raised is not just $80m short of the goal. Oh, no. It seems there were major mistakes in the budget, and they actually are still short by another $400m or so. Mistakes like, using numbers from the wrong years, or getting the police and parks departments mixed up, that sort of thing. Basic data entry errors. So many errors that they don't actually know how much money they need - they just know they don't have nearly enough, so we need to raise taxes or costs of other services again. So many errors that they won't even release a copy of this year's budget (!), because it wouldn't make sense. Just give us money and don't ask where it's going. Also, never mind that the people doing the budget are close friends relatives of Todd Stroger, the head of the county board. Nope, no nepotism here. And in no way was all that money wasted or spent illegally - which of course can easily be shown once the accounting gets corrected, which will never happen. This is so bold it should be unbelievable. Unfortunately, it's basically par for the course.

Obviously, a few months ago there was also the Tony Rezko scandal. For those who don't know, which will include most anyone who got election news from mainstream media, the short version is that Rezko is a Chicago-based businessman who made a fortune in real estate and used it to buy politicians. He was recently convicted on corruption and extortion charges in a trial in which an unnamed public official was prominently featured (today's news takes the probability of it being Blogo from about 98% to 99.999%). Basically this guy (along with the co-defendant who flipped, Stuart Levine) was buying favors from anyone he could get ahold of. In a completely unrelated incident, he was involved in a real estate deal with a then-unknown Chicago politician who got the better end by hundreds of thousands of dollars, contributed bunches to this fledgling politician's campaigns at the beginning of his career, and then that politician directed millions of public funds to Rezko's projects. But fortunately, there was nothing there worth investigating, or our diligent media surely would have been all over that.

So anyway, back to Blogo. What's stunning obviously isn't that a Chicago politician is corrupt. It's hard to find one that isn't. What's amazing about these reports is how bold he was about it. Blatantly selling the remainder of The Obama's senate term to the highest bidder - including taking offers over the phone - is about as brazen as you can get, especially since he had to know how closely this process would be watched, and with so many suspicions surrounding him already. The issue that really gets me is the extortion of the children's hospital. Basically, the state had money allocated to the hospital, and the governor let them know that he would block payment until the hospital's CEO gave him $50k. That's just wicked beyond words.

So what's the point of all this? It's a grim reminder of the reality of politics. Putting our hope in these guys is a losing proposition. When Christians misplace their faith, and view the party or a politician as savior or curer of the world's ills, it's foolish beyond description. The government - any government - is a means of common grace to help restrain evil. When it functions well, it can be great. But all earthly governments are subject to corruption and folly, because all are made of foolish, corrupt people.

But this further shows just how wicked we are. It would be nice to think that Blagojevich is an extreme case of human corruption, that we're mostly good and he just somehow hopped on the evil train. The reality is, we are all capable of his actions - or worse - if given the opportunity. If not for the grace of God - including common grace that acts to restrain such evil - the world would be utterly unlivable due to our wickedness. Those of us in Christ have only the grace of God to thank for making us alive and bringing about righteousness in us. And those not in Christ still have the grace of God to thank for not letting them do all the evil that is in their hearts. Let's take some time to thank God that openly, brazenly corrupt leaders like Blagojevich are still the exception rather than the rule.

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