Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Comparing Notes on Two Reviews: How Times Changed Politics

Recently, a mostly laudatory biography of a leader of the Illinois legislature from decades ago, Russell Arrington, was reviewed. A dissenting opinion of this legislator is contained in a book written by one of Arrington’s fellow Republican State Senator, Robert Canfield. Canfield found the Illinois legislature to be full of unethical behavior and outright corruption. He also expressed disappointment at the seeming lack of public outrage and inability that anything was done then to reform the system.

Canfield’s book is contrasted with “Tip of the Spear” by Russ Diamond, concerning citizen reactions expressed against the recent Pennsylvania legislature. Here, it is noted that the public objections were more against the legislative process and differences of opinions. Not only were these controversial legislative actions far less offensive that what was alleged in Illinois four decades ago, but the expressions of dissent in Pennsylvania were far more effective in achieving results than what occurred in Illinois.

Canfield claimed that the Chamber of Commerce and even gangsters had lobbyists who operated out of Illinois State Senate offices, using Senate staff and equipment in advancing their causes. These lobbyists saw to it that Senators received arguments for supporting their issues as well as large amounts of liquid beverages.

A bill to revoke liquor licenses for Illinois establishments allowing gambling was defeated with the assistance of illegal gambling influences. Small loan companies, many of which allegedly tied to organized crime, were allowed to charge higher than otherwise legal interest rates. Business interests kept taxes low or non-existent on stocks, bonds, securities, deposit funds, and inheritances.

In return, some Illinois State Senators were given jobs receiving commissions on items they never sold or even saw. Legislators often attended poker games with lobbyists, and were always very lucky to leave as winners.

In 1965, several legislative meetings with lobbyists were secretly recorded and the tapes delivered to a Chicago newspaper. The press printed how $50,000 was given by lobbyists to legislators for their actions on legislation. No legislator was ever charged with a crime from what these tapes exposed. In fact, all 24 Senators and 38 Representatives mentioned on these tapes who sought reelection won their races. On the other hand, all legislators who created the Illinois Crime Commission were defeated for reelection with the gambling lobby supporting their opponents.

In contrast, Russ Diamond and the Clean Sweep movement of which he was a leader arose primarily in opposition to legislators receiving a pay raise. This proved to be a successful movement that led to the pay raise being repealed and contributed to a number of incumbent legislators being defeated for reelection.

Diamond, in his book, in particular seems to dislike hypocrisy. He notes with scorn how previously, in 1995, Rep. John Perzel had declared another pay raise bill would never again be necessary. Further, he chides Perzel for telling a school child that he had not arrived at that school in a limousine, when in fact he had arrived in a town car with a limousine plate. Perzel was seen sending the limousine on its way as he, instead, departed in an SUV.

Diamond started as a one person movement. He opened the Operations Clean Sweep website. It received over 13,000 different visitors. He obtained the email addresses of as many reporters as he could find and began sending them press releases. He advises the way to get the press to pay attention is to construct the press releases in the form of news writing.

The approval rating for the legislature was at 26%, and in southwest Pennsylvania the approval rating was 19%. Senate Majority Leader Chip Brightbell’s personal rating was 17%. The outrage expressed by Diamond and others helped led to the defeat of several legislators for reelection. 17 incumbents lost in the primaries, among them President Pro Temp Bob Jubelirer and Senator Brightbill, although these two losses were not to candidates affiliated with the “Clean Sweep” movement.

The Clean Sweep organization in fact grew too big, too fast. It divided into two bitter camps that led to litigation. A Judge dissolved the Clean Sweep corporate entity. Diamond was allowed to keep his website.

What is noted that citizen action is more attentive and effective today than just a few decades ago. The type of outrageous behavior that voters tolerated in the past has mostly become something of the past. While Canfield was disgusted at what he saw, he still declared that “representative self-government is the finest and best of all forms of government”. Such faith should be restored in the progress that has been made. While Illinois may still find itself dealing with ethical questions with a Rod Blogojevich, now someone above such controversies such as Barack Obama can also emerge. Voters today in all states more effectively keep elected officials in check, and that is progress.


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