SPRINGFIELD, Ill.-Few cities in the Western world over the past century rival Chicago in backdoor deals and dishonest civic leaders. But the suburbs and rural areas throughout Illinois come close. The state's culture of corruption is pervasive, destructive, and very old.
The recent indictment of former Gov. Rod Blagojevich for allegedly trying to sell Barack Obama's vacated Senate seat is hardly the first scandal to sully that statewide office. The previous governor, Republican George Ryan, now sits in a federal prison for his role in a widespread corruption ring that produced dozens of indictments and convictions. Before him, Democrat Daniel Walker left the office of Illinois governor in 1977 and promptly committed savings and loan fraud, for which he spent 18 months behind bars.
And back in the late 1960s, Democratic Gov. Otto Kerner received a three-year sentence for accepting bribes.
Illinois sits among Louisiana, New Jersey, and Rhode Island in reputation as the most corrupt states in the union. Some political analysts believe simple ethics reform, more oversight, and tighter restrictions could affect lasting change. Other reform advocates contend that the root of the issue is beyond any legislative fix. The source of transformation, they say, must come more from new hearts than new laws.
It's 7:30 a.m. at the Illinois Capitol in Springfield. The main foyer of the 140-year-old building is still empty, but inside a small room near the west entrance, a group of legislators has gathered for Bible study. An Uncle Sam poster with the words "I need you to pray" adorns one wall above a framed copy of the Declaration of Independence. In this space, which has served as a dedicated chapel since the Ryan administration, church life and state politics intersect.
The 10 lawmakers in attendance on this morning joke casually about the legislative docket for the day. Talk turns to a medical marijuana bill, igniting discussion from various viewpoints. "This is America," someone says in defense of the bill. "Oh, I thought it was Springfield," another quips.
Then, the mood changes. Shaun Lewis, a freshly minted Master's Seminary graduate who founded the Bible study less than two years ago, directs attention to Psalm 139 for discussion of God's intimate knowledge of human hearts. "Why would anyone want to be known by a holy God?" he asks before answering his own question: "Because punishment is not at stake."
As he does every Thursday morning during session, Lewis, 29, leads his audience of legislators through the gospel, emphasizing the muscle of grace to bring a new kind of living-and a new kind of working. Absent is any specific political agenda. Gone is the evangelical instinct over the past several decades to exert influence through policy only. For Lewis, the primary objective is to see Illinois legislators embrace Christian faith and begin to take it seriously.
That's a mission spreading across state capitols nationwide thanks to the work of Capitol Ministries, an organization bent on refocusing the church's work in politics toward evangelism over special-interest lobbying. In a dozen years since its founding, the group has now deployed ministers in more than 20 state capitols and adds to its rolls each year.
Lewis hopes his work in Springfield can alter the existing culture of corruption one politician's heart at a time: "It's a long-term solution that we're working on. It's not like going in and persuading people like a lobbyist might do. It's the power of the gospel that transforms people from the inside out, and it's that consistency and perseverance over the long haul that I believe will make a difference."
But the present political realities in cities and districts throughout the state seem worlds away from the influence of a small chapel inside the capitol. The problems just seem too big, too many, too historically rooted.
Indeed, a recent report from the University of Illinois at Chicago documents criminal convictions of more than 1,500 individuals for some form of public corruption in Illinois since 1970, malfeasance costing taxpayers an estimated $500 million per year.
Political science professor Dick Simpson, a chief author of the report and former Chicago alderman, says such crookedness stems almost universally from machine politics, a Democratic machine in the city and a Republican machine in the suburbs: "If you're in the machine, you're trading government services, called favors, for votes; you're trading precinct work for patronage jobs; and you're trading government contracts for campaign contributions and sometimes bribes."
Of course, not every Illinois politician joins the machine. Alderman Joe Moore of the 49th Ward on the north side, for example, maintains a reputation for independence and ethics reform. "The culture of corruption is not reflective of all elected officials in the state," he says. "Most of us try to do our job honestly."
Still, the number of dishonest public figures is staggering. Simpson's report documents corruption convictions of 30 Chicago aldermen over the past four decades and postulates that as much as 5 percent of state government contracts are given out to political cronies and campaign contributors.
Better internal policing and transparency might well diminish such dirty deeds. But Lewis believes that only greater self-governance from politicians will ever truly alter the culture.
As Bible study draws to a close in the Springfield capitol, several legislators linger. Rep. Linda Chapa LaVia, a Democrat who confesses she never really read the Bible until coming to the Capitol Ministries morning study, has good news: "I was meeting with Gov. (Pat) Quinn to talk about the tax increase, and as we were leaving, he says, 'I heard you go to Bible study. I was thinking about that for the governor's mansion.'"
Quinn, the Democrat who replaced Blagojevich upon his removal from office, is Irish Catholic and a man of integrity by most accounts. Rep. Paul Froehlich, another Democrat who attends the Capitol Ministries study, has known Quinn for years and considers him a friend: "He's always been a reformer." Quinn once urged Illinois citizens to inundate the office of former Gov. James Thompson with 40,000 tea bags in protest over post-election pay raises.
Since taking over the governor's seat in January, Quinn has expressed support for the so-called "fumigation bill" of Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, a plan to remove 750 Blagojevich and Ryan appointees. Among the additional reforms self-proclaimed clean government advocates demand is a change to the present system in which state candidates are allowed to take unlimited amounts of contributions from anyone offering.
Froehlich, who recently switched political affiliation after many years as an active Republican, believes Quinn's influence will be critical in altering such laws. The state lawmaker is convinced that for all the Capitol Ministries talk of personal heart change, legislative solutions to corruption are of primary importance: "We shouldn't just fall back on that old comfortable individualism, 'Well, we'll just talk to people one on one.' I'm afraid that's not the way you really change society. You've got to change the law to be able to achieve greater justice."
Sen. Tim Bivins, a Republican, concedes that legislation plays a role but is increasingly convinced that evangelism can help clean up Illinois politics: "True rehabilitation comes from change in the heart. You change the heart, you change the mind. It's no different for legislators. And there's only one true way to change the heart, and that's through Christ."
Fellow Republican Sen. Brad Burzynski agrees: "At a time when we're going through all this with Blagojevich, people say, 'Well, we need a new person, we need this, we need that.' We can point the finger at him because there is corruption there. But without God, nothing's going to make a difference. He's the only one who can touch the hearts and minds of men and women."
For Lewis, that kind of talk plays like smooth jazz. He believes that for too long evangelicals have overlooked their mandate to pray for and evangelize political leaders. He believes much of the church is distracted from what should be its primary mission, having long sacrificed its prophetic edge to play the special interest game: "Churches have tended to be so programmed to get involved with lobbying and political activism that they've really lost sight of the gospel."
In turn, many Illinois politicians have lost sight of the church. Lewis would have them look again.
Alan Dobry steps out the front door of one of many ivy-smothered brick apartment buildings in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago's South Side. A longtime political operative in the city, Dobry, 82, is now more history book than movement leader, a living collage of experiences and memories that tell the often sordid story of Chicago politics dating back five decades.
"The Chicago machine never was forced to clean up," he says, strolling north along the tree-lined sidewalk of Hyde Park Boulevard. "People in Chicago talk about things as a matter of course that you'd be arrested for anywhere else. Here, when you have to pay off or you have to fix something, even if they could do it honestly, they're so used to doing it corruptly that they don't do it honestly."
Much of that culture has often emanated from Hyde Park, a place steeped in political activism and the chosen home of many corrupt elected officials. Yet somehow this Midwestern hotbed of crooked dealings produced the nation's 44th president, a man many consider a beacon of honesty and clean government.
Barack Obama still maintains a residence in the neighborhood, though he rarely visits the home, which is now under constant surveillance from Secret Service and local police. But years ago, the people and institutions of this community made the man. He developed his political philosophy here and learned how to win elections.
Dobry watched it all, working on the ground as a Democratic Party committeeman for 16 years before joining the Independent Voters of Illinois, a reform group bent on cleaning up the state's ethics messes. He limps down a side street to the private gated community where Obama and his wife Michelle spent the early years of their marriage together. "East View Park," he says, waving his hand to a tidy row of brick town homes. "He lived here up to the time he became a U.S. senator."
The well-maintained grounds and buildings of the place mask the ugliness of misused power that largely defines this neighborhood. Dobry says Obama simply learned to "go along," keeping his nose clean and yet never pressing too hard to expose the powerful dirty snouts surrounding him. Obama developed a close political alliance in 2003 with then Illinois Senate President Emil Jones, a powerful Chicago politician known for operating squarely within the Democratic machine.
Obama persuaded Jones to back him for an open U.S. Senate seat, a brilliant political move that earned the little-known state senator enough clout to secure election. Jones was notorious for helping friends and particular interest groups. He acquired state jobs for relatives and blocked ethics reform bills that might have hampered his ally Rod Blagojevich. Obama never said a word. Obama was likewise friendly with political fundraiser and real estate developer Tony Rezko, a man convicted last year on 16 counts of fraud and corruption.
Now, the president is prone to pat himself on the back for navigating his political breeding ground without incurring damage to his reputation: "I think I have done a good job in rising politically in this environment without being entangled in some of the traditional problems of Chicago politics."
Political science professor Dick Simpson of the University of Illinois at Chicago believes Obama ducked hostility from machine bosses by not singling them out in his reform efforts: "He didn't blow the whistle on a lot of particular people, but he did author reform legislation of various sorts, the most important of which was the ethics laws that came through."
Obama was among the state legislators in 1998 who pushed through a law requiring electronic disclosure of campaign contributions and expenditures. The ethics bill also banned gifts to politicians, precisely the kind of shenanigans that tripped Blagojevich.
But what of the obligation to name names? Even now, Obama often remains silent in matters of Illinois corruption. He declined to take sides this past spring in a debate in the state House over whether to impeach Blagojevich, a man Obama enthusiastically supported in his initial run for governor in 2002 and re-election bid in 2006. Only later, as the story of Blagojevich toppled into the absurd, did Obama finally call for his resignation.
Perhaps that eventual statement against Blagojevich signals some change in the Obama approach. Columnist John Fund of The Wall Street Journal has written optimistically that maybe Obama will now begin "to forthrightly address the corruption issues that the state will be sorting through in the weeks and months ahead. A president has a powerful bully pulpit. A few words from Mr. Obama could force real and lasting change in Illinois."
(Editor's Note: This article has been edited to reflect that former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich did not resign but was removed from office by a 59-0 vote in the state Senate.)