Don’t fall in love with a governor.
In a single day, Illinois saw one of its ex-governors lose his wife, while another had to tell his young daughters he may be away from home for the next decade.
Rod Blagojevich ran against George Ryan’s corruption in 2002, and promised to end “pay to play” politics in his inaugural speech, but it turns out the two men have a lot in common.
Neither man was the least bit idealistic. Both were machine politicians, more concerned with career advancement than ideological causes. If Ryan had grown up in Chicago, he would have become a Democrat. If Blagojevich had grown up in Kankakee, he would have become a Republican.
Ryan was a product of a Kankakee County Republican Party run by state Sen. Ed McBroom, an auto dealer who required job applicants to buy a car from him before he’d put them on the county payroll. McBroom put Ryan on the county board, then the state legislature, while steering nursing home business to his family pharmacies. A GOP soldier, Ryan spent 32 years climbing the political ladder, cooling his heels in the anterooms of the lieutenant governorship and the Secretary of State’s office before finally getting his shot at running the state.
Blagojevich, of course, was a product of the 33rd Ward Democratic Party, run by his father-in-law, Ald. Richard Mell, who set Blagojevich up in politics because every big-time Chicago ward boss needs a state representative under his control. Blagojevich got a lucky break when Rep. Dan Rostenkowski lost his seat to an obscure Republican (so obscure I can’t even remember his name), who was an easy target two years later.
What they really had in common? They both operated within a system that placed no limits on campaign contributions.
When Ryan and Blagojevich were in office, Illinois was one of five states with no limits on campaign contributions. In that freewheeling political culture, grabbing as much money as you could was a matter of survival. Blagojevich spent $17 million to win re-election—three times as much as his Republican opponent. Not only did they have the motive to sell offices, they have the opportunity. The Illinois Constitution provides for a strong governorship, with the power to appoint boards that spend tax money. Not surprisingly, these appointments often go to big political donors or their friends.
“One reason that [Blagojevich] was able to raise enough money to crush his opposition was that he had so much to sell,” said James L. Merriner, author of a book on Ryan. “There are so many commissions and pension boards and toll-way authorities and all these administrative agencies that are usually out of public view.”
Ryan’s lust for campaign cash allowed him to destroy the idealistic Glenn Poshard, who refused PAC money and asked his supporters to send in $10. Blagojevich rewarded campaign contributor Tony Rezko by allowing him to appoint cronies to state boards.
Unlike many politicians, neither Blagojevich nor Ryan loved money for its own sake, but for the power it could purchase. That’s what ended them both in prison, and destroyed both their families.
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