A study released last week actually ranks Illinois at #19 (North Dakota, D.C. and Louisiana round out the top three), but that study is based solely on corruption convictions (which, as an aside, is why North Dakota's ranking is so skewed). As Illinois residents know all to well, the handful of politicians that have been held accountable for their misdeeds sadly represent only a fraction of those who have abused the public trust.
Indeed, the "culture of corruption" that led to Republican defeat on a national level in 2006 has been simmering in Illinois for decades. Illinois residents have long suffered the status quo of backroom deals and bribery not because of a lack of will, but because the system itself --like so many political systems across this nation -- is engineered to lock out reformers and to reward those who recklessly handle the public trust. In that closed system of shadows, in the darkness of deeds undertaken away from the public eye, corruption thrives.
But when the sunlight of accountability finally hits, when the public finally turns its eye in acknowledgment and decides that the status quo will serve no longer, the political landscape seemingly explodes. We saw it on a national scale, where the acts of Tom Delay, Duke Cunningham, Ted Stevens, William Jefferson and countless others were emblazoned on the front pages of newspapers day after day. We saw it here in Illinois, with names like Rod Blagojevich, George Ryan, and Ed Vrdolyak burned and etched into infamy.
Fiery and long-overdue outrage is finally manifesting itself these last several years, and it's setting the current political establishment on fire.
As tragic as the series of corruption cases on the state and federal level may be, the conflagration created by exposing these breaches of the public trust is necessary as we struggle to reform government. Only by examining the burnt wasteland of politics past can we fully appreciate the renewed spirit of progressive reform in America. Like the mythical Phoenix, it is out of the ashes of this old politics that reformer campaigns are born, symbolizing strength, resilience, and resolve.
Giannoulias's decision to reject corporate PAC and lobbyist money is just such a "Phoenix project." It comes on the heels of his large-scale reforms in state government (like banning lobbyists gifts and and prohibiting political contributions to his campaign from any banks, state contractors and office employees). It symbolizes a refreshing change in Illinois politics. And the twin decision to accept contributions from coalitions of the hardest working Americans -- teachers, veterans, firefighters, etc. -- evidences a deep respect for the role ordinary citizens have in the political process.
It's the interests of these ordinary citizens that have generally been cast aside in past Illinois political campaigns. After all, Rep. Mark Kirk, the GOP's most likely candidate for Illinois Senate, raised over $435,000 from business PACs in 2006, and he increased that amount by over 80% in 2008, raising some $790,000 from corporate special interests.
Corporate and lobbyist money doesn't necessary give rise to corruption. Yet story after story demonstrates that the undue influence of such entities in government has spread like wildfire and is consuming the very breath of our democratic institutions. As such, like the president himself noted on the campaign trail, avoidance of their contributions is a crucial first step towards real change.
It's reformers like Giannoulias, Darcy Burner, and members of our own netroots community that are giving birth to a new political religion. They are skirting conventional wisdom and embracing new methods of campaigning and governing for a new era in American history. In doing so, they are resurrecting that "reverence for laws" Abraham Lincoln once extolled -- and that our nation now so desperately needs.
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