October 28, 2009
BY CAROL MARIN Sun-Times Columnist
Scott Turow, the prolific, best-selling Chicago author, had a message for Illinois lawmakers the other day.
"Don't come home without it," he warned.
The "it" is campaign finance reform.
Lawmakers today are reconvening in Springfield for the final days of the fall veto session.
And they've made a promise they better finally keep.
To put limits -- real limits -- on the limitless amounts of cash Illinois politicians can legally pour into their campaign war chests. And to make especially sure those limits apply not just to the rank and file, but to all-powerful Speaker of the House Mike Madigan, his fellow leaders and their respective political party funds.
Turow made his declaration the other day while being honored by the Better Government Association for his decades of civic leadership. But Turow, a former federal prosecutor, was quick to point out the profound irony of one of his many civic endeavors.
"You may not remember," he ruefully told a packed audience at the Union League Club Thursday, "but I was appointed in Gov. Rod Blagojevich's first term to be the chairman of his newly formed Ethics Commission."
That was in 2002.
Back when Rockin' Rod had just been elected on a "reform" agenda. Back before any of us knew that he was already scheming to figure out how he could out-do his now-incarcerated predecessor, George Ryan, on the pay-to-play front.
But it quickly became apparent to Turow and everyone else that when Blagojevich didn't bother to appoint the rest of the commission, reform wasn't exactly one of the governor's burning passions.
Nor has it been for most of those in the state Legislature. Or for its leadership over the years. Illinois is one of only six states where the sky's the limit on campaign cash.
"Unlimited campaign contributions are an incumbent protection plan," said Turow, who pointed out that the last statewide incumbent to lose an election was Gov. Dan Walker in 1976.
Blagojevich blew the top off when it came to accepting obscenely large amounts of cash from people seeking appointments or contracts from the state.
"Nobody believes," said Turow, "that someone who gives a candidate $50,000 doesn't expect something in return."
Last December, it seemed we might have seen the light at last.
That's when Blagojevich was pulled from his bed in his pajamas and hustled into handcuffs by the FBI. And when solemn-faced lawmakers in January impeached him, tried him, and removed him from office.
Our new governor, Pat Quinn, stood with Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton and GOP leaders Christine Radogno and Tom Cross, and pledged a new day.
By May we knew that new day was a joke.
Quinn had betrayed his own newly appointed Ethics Reform Commission, caved to Madigan and Cullerton, and with great ceremony declared the hollow new campaign finance law they pushed through their Democratic majorities to be "landmark" legislation.
So full of loopholes, and so crammed with leadership spending prerogatives, citizens all over the state saw the Swiss cheese they'd made and rose up.
That's why Quinn was forced to veto that which he had hailed, with Madigan and Cullerton uncomfortably at his side.
They promised to do better.
But the sticking point -- then and now -- has been whether Madigan, Cullerton and political parties would be exempt when it came to limiting the amount of money they could pump into the campaigns of their preferred candidates.
There was a closed-door meeting Tuesday as Quinn and the leaders met with civic reform groups.
The only reason there was a meeting at all is that they know you are watching.
Campaign finance reform.
Don't come home without it.