What’s Wrong with Illinois? A Conversation on Corruption with Andy Shaw of the Better Government Association


Andy Shaw, Better Government Association

Andy Shaw is an award-winning Chicago journalist who spent 37 years covering local, state, and national politics, business, education, and day-to-day news at the City News Bureau of Chicago, Chicago Sun-Times, NBC 5, and ABC 7. Shaw joined the Better Government Association in June 2009 as Executive Director and was named President and CEO in 2011.He received a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Illinois at Chicago. 

 Four of the last eight Illinois governors have gone to prison. 35 Chicago aldermen have gone to jail in the last 30 years. What’s wrong with Illinois?

The problem involves the way the system grew up in Chicago. These were political machines that basically served the incoming immigrant population. With the best of intentions, waves of immigrants came into big cities. And they needed jobs, clothing, and schools for their kids. So the political organizations and governmental entities were a great source of those things for the immigrants. What did they want in return? They wanted soldiers — people to work the political campaigns. And from the contractors they wanted campaign cash. So what developed was a barter system that had nothing to do with meeting public need. It had nothing to do with public services.

In such a system, there’s enormous opportunity for corruption, theft, fraud, and bad behavior. This happened in Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston, New York, Detroit, Cleveland, and Pittsburgh. And as a result, terrible habits were formed, many of them hard to break.

Why has corruption been so persistent in Illinois?

I think that there’s always been a kind of glamorization of the rogue public official. Chicago has a very interesting “front page” tradition. Chicago, going back to the 1920s, is a place where you had this rock-’em-sock-’em journalism, and the mob, Capone, “Hinky Dink,” and “Bathhouse” John – the “Lords of the Levee in City Council. A lot of these folks have continued to enjoy the myth of political power. With that myth goes a certain amount of stuff they think they can get away with. They think no one’s looking, and the rules don’t apply to them. I think a lot of people have basically thought they could beat the system, and maybe have for years. But eventually some of them get caught.

Is Illinois’ reputation worse than the reality? Or is the reality worse than the reputation?

As of April 2014, I think the reputation is worse than the reality. There has been a lot of very good watchdog work done and a revitalization of investigative reporting, especially in Chicago and Cook County. There’s been so much focus on Blagojevich and George Ryan before him and the aldermen. I think that every day another public official thinks twice about breaking the law. It’s a lot better than it was, and can be a lot better if we continue to shine a very bright light and hold these people accountable. The biggest challenge is that there aren’t enough people paying attention.

How do we get voters energized about cleaning up government?

I wish there was a magic bullet. We have two million Illinois residents of voting age who are not registered. In our last primary election, the turnout was just 16 percent among registered voters. One reason is that the election was not at all competitive. Almost 80 percent of the races in the Chicagoland area in the primary (for offices other than judge) were uncontested. So there’s no incentive to come out and vote.

There are so many things that have to be done. We need to reform our redistricting, we may need term limits, and we have a broken electoral system in terms of ballot access. We probably need open primaries instead of closed primaries, we probably ought to change when we have our elections, and maybe we need to explore public financing of campaigns.

We have a crisis in our democracy. It’s not visible. It’s not like hunger. It’s not like homelessness. I can’t show you what better government looks like, and it’s very hard to get people engaged in a concept. People have been told their entire lives, “you can’t fight city hall.” That’s BS. You can fight city hall, and you should fight city hall.

On the subject of possible fixes, you mention term limits. Republican candidate for Illinois governor, Bruce Rauner, has made this a staple of his campaign. What do you feel are the potential benefits and downfalls of such a change?

Term limits are no elixir, and there’s no evidence that term limits make any difference. But people would feel better. Part of this is perception. When only 28 percent of the people in your state say that they have confidence in government, you have a problem. Even if term limits don’t improve anything quickly, I think it has the potential to give people a sense that things can change.

Is there an investigation, either from your time as a journalist or your time at BGA, that you’re most proud of?

The investigation that was most important as a journalist was a case involving a family in an accident on a highway leaving Milwaukee. A big piece of metal fell off a truck, bounced under the family’s car, and hit the fuel line and the gas tank, causing an explosion. Six children died in that crash.

My friend’s lawsuit began to uncover the fact that the truck driver shouldn’t have been licensed and might have paid a bribe to get his license. That truck driver was one of hundreds of drivers that paid bribes to get licenses that they probably shouldn’t have had under the watch of then-governor George Ryan.

That story sparked an investigation that put George Ryan in jail and resulted in another 80 people convicted of participation in various levels of corruption. What I end up being proudest of are the investigations that save lives, or improve lives, not necessarily save money.

What is the most urgent priority today for promoting better government in Illinois?

I think there would have to be two or three tied together. First, I think you have to outlaw conflicts of interest. By that I mean I don’t think you should be able to be a public official and also have a private job that intersects with government.

The most powerful alderman in the city council, Ed Burke, Speaker Michael Madigan, and Senate President John Cullerton, collectively are responsible for over 60 billion tax dollars per year. All three of them also have private law practices that specialize in getting large corporations and property owners tax breaks on their property tax bills. They save these people tens of millions of dollars that have to be made up by whom? By us.

I also think redistricting reform is essential. And something else that would make a huge difference would be mandating a much broader power, authority, and job security for inspector generals. If you gave inspector generals with every large branch of government around the state the same power that the city inspector general has, I think you’d ferret out a lot of bad behavior. So empowered inspector generals, redistricting reform, and conflict of interest laws are things that would begin to improve the quality of government.

Feature Photo: cc/(Jeremy Wilburn)

Aaron Rosenberg
Aaron Rosenberg is a staff writer for the Chicago Policy Review and is an MPP student at the Harris School of Public Policy. He has also been published in the Columbia Political Review.

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