Illinois jury says no more politics as usual

The fraud conviction of a former GOP governor plays into November's election as the party aims for a rebound.

The trial and conviction on fraud charges of former Illinois Gov. George Ryan has shined a bright light on the dark corners of the inner workings of state government and its pay-to-play politics - practices that many critics say have too often been accepted as business as usual.

Now, analysts are wondering how much more damage the conviction will cause Illinois's once-powerful Republican party - in particular, with the upcoming gubernatorial election this year.

"This is a huge event. It may be the biggest corruption case ever in the state of Illinois in terms of its significance," says Christopher Mooney, a political science professor at the University of Illinois in Springfield.

On Monday, jury members found Governor Ryan guilty of all 18 counts against him - including racketeering, mail fraud, tax fraud, and making false statements to the FBI. The verdict caps a lengthy trial and a far-reaching federal investigation that has resulted in 75 convictions over nearly eight years.

Most of the charges against Ryan - known nationally for his crusade against the death penalty - stemmed from his days as Illinois secretary of state. He held that post from 1991 to 1999. Prosecutors used reams of evidence and testimony - in the absence of a single "smoking gun" - to show that the former governor had accepted cash, gifts, and vacations for himself and his family in exchange for granting lucrative state contracts. The evidence also suggested Ryan had squeezed employees for political contributions and campaign work and had scuttled investigations into a licenses-for-bribes scandal, which included granting a license to a truck driver involved in a 1994 crash that killed six children.

Such charges illustrate what critics say has often been condoned in Illinois politics. "The political culture in Illinois is more tolerant of corruption generally," says Professor Mooney. In this state, unlike some others, going into politics is often done for personal interests, he adds. "Sometimes, some people cross the line."

But Ryan's case, more than any other, raised voters' ire and tarred the state's Republican Party with a stain that it has been trying to erase for years. The 2002 gubernatorial election, in which Republicans lost the governor's seat for the first time in nearly 30 years, was viewed by many as a judgment on Ryan, even though his name wasn't on the ballot. (The Republican nominee, though no relation, did have the misfortune to share his last name.)

Since then, Illinois has gone from being a swing state to one that is decidedly Democratic. Republicans are a minority in the legislature and hold just one statewide office. President Bush lost the state by 10 points in the last election, and Republican Senate candidate Alan Keyes won just 27 percent of the vote in his race against Barack Obama.

Demographic shifts and an ideological split in the state GOP have contributed, but many observers say the Ryan scandal played a huge role in the party's demise.

"There's no question that the downfall of the Republican Party rests squarely on George Ryan's shoulders," says Mike Lawrence, director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University and press secretary to former Gov. Jim Edgar (R).

But he and others disagree as to how much more impact this week's conviction will have.

Voters "understood in 2002 that Ryan's stewardship had been corrupt and they reacted," says Professor Lawrence. "Once they've expressed themselves, they tend to move on. I'm sure the Democrats would love to run against George Ryan for the rest of the 21st century, but I think the 2006 election is likely to be more about [Gov. Rod] Blagojevich and [State Treasurer Judy Baar] Topinka than George Ryan." The two are squaring off in this fall's governor's race.

Ryan's trial has already been a vivid backdrop to that race. Before the primaries, Republican candidates scrambled to distance themselves from the former governor, and to link their opponents.

In one commercial, a candidate showed a video clip of Ms. Topinka, who ultimately won the Republican primary, dancing with Ryan at a state fair, claiming he had taught her "the pay-to-play polka."

Topinka has also criticized her opponent, Governor Blagojevich, for ethical lapses, and has tried to paint him as another corrupt politician. Federal prosecutors are currently investigating both his administration and that of Chicago Mayor Richard Daley. But it may be more difficult for Topinka to use that argument in the wake of Ryan's conviction.

"It'll make it hard for Republicans to get any traction" with the corruption charge, says Dick Simpson, a political science professor at the University of Illinois in Chicago.

Ryan's sentencing is scheduled for August. He is likely to appeal the decision.

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