In Illinois, Ryan takes on Ryan

The deepening bribery scandal surrounding the state's chief executive prompts GOP candidate Jim Ryan to ask Gov. George Ryan to consider resigning.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Chicago has long flaunted its colorful tradition of political chicanery. But the city by the lake is keeping its nose relatively clean these days. So the state's center of political corruption has shifted to (gasp!) the capital, Springfield.

Is it possible this city of Abe Lincoln memorials and pleasant tree-lined neighborhoods is out-grafting the gritty metropolis that made it high art?

Well at the moment, apparently yes, although no one in Springfield seems particularly surprised. Recent revelations of bribes, plastic bags full of shredded documents, and coverups, which could make an Enron executive blush, are not exactly unheard of in state circles.

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The long-running scandal swirling around the governor has angered voters, tainted the state Republican ticket, and threatened to swing the executive mansion to the Democrats for the first time in a quarter century. This week, the GOP gubernatorial candidate took the extraordinary step of suggesting that the current governor – a fellow Republican who has already announced he won't run again – consider resigning.

Still, the allegations of corruption haven't exactly inflamed the denizens of Springfield and the rest of Illinois. "It's a style of politics where you have a lot of the wink and the nod," says Kent Redfield, a former legislative staffer who is now a political scientist at the University of Illinois at Springfield. Illinois "has had a very patronage-oriented power politics. Winning and losing political control are much more important than ideas."

Ever since his election four years ago, Gov. George Ryan has been dogged by a corruption investigation into his campaign organization. By Illinois standards, the seeds of the current scandal didn't look so bad: His campaign used state employees for political work, federal investigators say. The indictment charges that when Mr. Ryan was still secretary of state, some workers raised campaign funds by selling driver's licenses to unqualified truckers.

Then things turned serious. One of the truckers was involved in a crash that killed six children. Rather than report irregularities, campaign officials tried to cover them up by shredding documents and thwarting internal investigations, according to the US attorney on the case. Last month, two former Ryan aides were indicted.

A poll published earlier this week by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch found that two-thirds of Illinois voters thought the governor should resign. Political analysts say those poll numbers prompted Republican gubernatorial candidate Jim Ryan (no relation) to suggest that the governor consider stepping down.

But the governor has said he won't leave. After all, he has not been indicted, and he maintains he didn't know about a bribes-for-licenses scheme.

"I don't think there's a chance" of resignation, says John Jackson, a political scientist at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale.

Ryan, if indicted, would hardly be the first Illinois state official to go astray. Gov. Len Small, Gov. Otto Kerner, and state auditor Orville Hodge were all convicted for various financial irregularities. Illinois House Speaker Paul Powell, who earned less than $300,000 during his lifetime, managed somehow to leave a $3.1 million estate. Two months after his death in 1970, someone discovered containers in his Springfield hotel room crammed with $750,000 in cash.

"This is a culture that's been around for a long, long time," says Charlie Wheeler, a former Chicago Sun-Times reporter and now director of the public-affairs reporting program at the University of Illinois at Springfield.

Not everyone believes the current scandal has hurt this city's reputation. "I don't think it has tarnished Springfield at all," says Barry Locher, editor of the State Journal-Register. "We look at it as Illinois politics."

Reform is possible, analysts agree, though it may prove limited. Thanks to court rulings against patronage and changes in state law, there has already been some improvement.

Still, reform "tends to be scandal-driven," says Mr. Redfield. In Illinois, "politicians ask: 'What kind of reform will be sufficient to make this go away?' "

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