May 9, 2009
BY CAROL MARIN Sun-Times Columnist
The most respected and/or feared politician in the state, House Speaker Michael Madigan, had it exactly right 11 years ago.
Let's jump into the Reform Time Machine.
To find out how to e-mail your senator or representative, go to the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform's Web site http://www.ilcampaign.org and click "Get Involved."
George Ryan, the Republican secretary of state, is running for governor against Glenn Poshard, a Democratic congressman from Southern Illinois.
WHAM! BOOM!! POW!!!!
The airwaves are hit with the most controversial ad of the campaign season. The commercial is paid for by Democratic Party Chairman Michael Madigan, and it goes right for the jugular.
"Unsafe truckers are on our roads," declares the announcer. "A family has paid a terrible price. Six children are dead. His office riddled with corruption and George Ryan wants to be our governor."
The ad enraged Republicans and was even criticized by important Democrats for being reckless and unfair.
What we would later learn is that it was neither.
But in 1998, we had only just begun to comprehend the full and insidious relationship between the tragic crash of a van carrying the family of the Rev. Duane "Scott" Willis and the corrosive corruption that, to this very day, eats away at Illinois.
The Mount Greenwood minister and his wife, Janet, were badly burned. Six of their nine children were incinerated and killed. All because an unqualified truck driver had bribed his way to a commercial driver's license. The bribe money was then funneled into the campaign coffers of the secretary of state.
The ad aired in October 1998, just a month before the election and only weeks after Assistant U.S. Attorney Patrick Collins and a team of feds made the first five arrests in what came to be known as Operation Safe Road.
It would take eight years, 75 convictions and George Ryan going off to prison before the books closed on this particular probe.
But in 1998, Madigan's admittedly partisan but fearless use of those images failed to win Democrats the governorship just as Collins' relentless pursuit of corruption failed to send the political establishment "a message."
It boggles the mind that while Ryan was on trial, his successor, Rod Blagojevich, was setting new, stratospheric standards for our infamous pay-to-play politics.
Now, with just 21 days to go until the General Assembly takes off for summer vacation, there is a rare opportunity to recast Illinois as the symbol of something other than sleaze.
Collins, a civilian attorney now, heads Gov. Quinn's Illinois Reform Commission, which has just published a comprehensive and thoughtful package of proposals to cap campaign contributions -- the jet fuel of corruption -- as well as shed a bright light on our darkly lit government. Read their report at ReformIllinoisNow.org.
On Collins' commission is the Rev. Willis, the father of the six children who perished. It is impossible not to be impressed by this man, whose family has endured such suffering but who is still willing to volunteer his service to a state government that failed to serve him.
Though he is "cautiously optimistic" that reform legislation can make it out of Springfield in the next three weeks, Willis worries that citizens of Illinois aren't committed to this fight.
"I want to lay the responsibility at the voters' feet," he said by phone last week. "The circus with Blagojevich became funny instead of tragic or heartbreaking. I just don't think that voters are going to force a change."
We owe it to Willis to show him we will. Take a moment to call Speaker Madigan's office at (217) 782-5350 or contact the legislative leaders listed on Page 24.
Tell him we need to harness his leadership and fearlessness on behalf of real reform in this state, especially when it comes to campaign cash. Though Madigan last week urged the passage of legislation to fire 3,000 holdover Blagojevich and Ryan appointees from state government, changing the people won't do the trick. Only changing the rules will.
Make Springfield hear you.