Chicago Sun-Times

Gov's Wrong. We Can Do Better

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May 30, 2009

BY CAROL MARIN Sun-Times Columnist

On Friday morning, Cindi Canary's voice said it all, sounding notes of defeat, disgust, and fury.

"I feel scammed," said the executive director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform.

Canary, 50, was on her cell phone in Springfield, home of the Illinois General Assembly and haven for un-reformers, talking about the state Senate's passage of the un-reform campaign contribution bill. "There was an outcry and it was met with scorn and disrespect," she said.

The outcry was what followed then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich's FBI arrest, impeachment and indictment.

Members of the Illinois House and Senate told every TV camera in sight in January that they were fed up with corruption and promised a new day.

The new governor, Pat Quinn, appointed a blue-ribbon reform commission to seize the moment and show the world that Illinois politics wasn't just an endless plot line for late-night comics and reality TV.

Apparently it still is.

On Thursday, Quinn threw his Reform Commission, headed by former federal prosecutor Patrick Collins, overboard.

What passed the Senate --campaign finance reform -- was watered-down, loophole-ridden legislation. It gives House Speaker Michael Madigan -- the real governor of Illinois -- and Senate President John Cullerton even more power over passing out money to their favored candidates.

As this debate played out, plenty of you have tried your best to weigh in. You've called, written, faxed, and e-mailed (except to Madigan, who doesn't bother with e-mail).

So far, it hasn't made a difference, something Collins understands but doesn't happily accept. "We came from the view that after all the eloquence, all the scandal, that the sky was the limit," he said by phone Friday.

"The state" said Collins, "did not get what it deserved."

No, it didn't.

In just the last eight days, consider the news stories that have come our way while the Legislature has been in session:

• • A fund-raiser for Quinn offered "face-time" with the governor to donors who were encouraged to give a suggested $15,000. Quinn later called it unauthorized and a mistake.

• • Sen. Roland Burris offered yet another crazy, contradictory explanation of how newly released federal wiretaps on which he was recorded discussing campaign contributions weren't really "pay-to-play" conversations with Rod Blagojevich's fund-raiser brother even though they sounded exactly like "pay-to-play."

• • Ald. Isaac Carothers of the 29th Ward was indicted, like his alderman-father before him, for allegedly taking $40,000 worth of kickbacks from a clouted developer who allegedly funneled third- party political donations to Carothers' aunt, a Cook County judge.

All three stories, in one way or another, involve campaign cash.

Illinois is at or near the bottom of the national reform barrel when it comes to regulating political donations. But hey, it's right at the top of the list when it comes to legislative creativity. It pretends to regulate what political action committees or party leaders can give to candidates even though it puts absolutely no limits on "in-kind" contributions such as staff, television ads and direct mail.

While there are federal limits of $4,800 per election cycle, our "un-reform" limits are a laughable $20,000 for a state senator. Quinn is apparently so desperate to declare a reform victory that he's willing to say with a straight face that this is the best we can do.

It's not.

And a courageous member of the Democratic majority, Rep. Julie Hamos, made that clear in an impassioned speech Friday on the House floor, demanding to know why party loyalty should dictate that rank and file act "like lemmings" for their leadership.

If the House votes to support this un-reform bill on Saturday, she's clear: "It won't fool the public."

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A newspaper reported that, "Quinn told an Illinois Senate panel 'this is the best we can do at this time'" So, we all know that this really our only opportunity to get a reform bill passed - while the iron is hot. Now, the momentum will be gone and the influence buying will continue to gallop. I hope we can get some embarrassing national publicity for the irresponsible behavior by our State Legislature and approving Governor.

I missed Hamos' speech - but I comment her and other House Dems for revolting with their no vote. There are a few good incumbents trying to fight for us. BUT - there are few and far between. I hope everyone is out searching for, and building grassroots support for real leaders that can add to this small coalition of reformers in the House.

If the politicians in Springfield think that the electorate cannot see through this morass of deception, then they are really stupid. We all understand that these folks want two things only from their "public service." Money and power.
They are so emboldened because they think that incumbents will get elected over and over again, just as they have in the past, so Illinois politics doesn't need to reform. So I think it's up to the electorate to prove them wrong.

Please, for the sake of the state, it's citizens and the future of this beautiful country, DON'T VOTE FOR INCUMBENTS. They have had their chance and they have blown it, from village hall to the nation's capitol building. We can change the course of this country but we have to stop voting the crooks back in and since they will go along with the leadership to make sure they get handouts for their compaigns and pork to take back to their constituents, they can no longer be trusted. We need fresh faces and better minds who aren't afraid to work to make the country and states better.

The General Assembly seems to have two options: (1) serve the public interest by passing meaningful reform legislation that contains some teeth (e.g., the proposals put forth by the Collins Commission); or (2) serve the political self-interest of those in power by passing a watered-down, loophole-filled, “Reform Lite” bill, which will almost certainly be rolled out by our leaders with self-congratulatory press releases. A third option – doing nothing -- is no longer realistic in the post-Blagojevich era, because complete inaction would be against the political self-interest of those in power.

Unfortunately, option one was D.O.A. in Springfield. No commission appointed by this governor was ever going to be allowed to drive the terms of the legislative debate. My own representative (and Assistant Majority Leader) Lou Lang said as much when he told me he opposed having an up-or-down vote on each proposal put forth by the Collins Commission. Representative Lang told me he believes in the “art of the legislative process” and wants to craft a bill that reflects “what the . . . members of the House and Senate believe [is] in the public interest.”

Nice words, but he didn’t explain how he and his colleagues determine what governmental reforms are in our best interest. (I know he didn’t survey me or the other voters in his district.)

Nor did he explain how he and his colleagues resolve conflicts between the public interest and an elected official’s interest in political self-preservation. What public interest is served, for example, by continuing to allow campaign committees controlled by our legislative leaders to shower their favorite candidates with virtually unlimited funds?

I told Rep. Lang that political self-interest all too often trumps the public interest in Illinois. I told him that hundreds of hours of federal wiretaps bear that out year after year.

I’m confident our leaders believe that a critical mass of their constituents is not paying much attention to this debate. (I’d wager that, by and large, the leaders are correct.) Our legislators know that times are tough in this state and that most folks have their hands full just trying to pay the bills each month.

That’s why the General Assembly will be able to skip town after passing only Reform Lite. That’s also why they’ll hear nary a cry from their constituents.

We get the leaders we deserve. We have not yet hit bottom as a state, and therefore we are not yet ready to demand true reform.

And it pains me to say that.

Matt Farmer

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This page contains a single entry by Carol Marin published on May 30, 2009 6:14 AM.

Three days left...and still no real reform was the previous entry in this blog.

Why, oh why, am I watching Patti? is the next entry in this blog.

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