With the unmasking of Gov. Rod Blagojevich as a kleptocrat of Paraguayan proportion, Illinois now has a real chance—if the allegations prove true— to defeat Louisiana in the NCAA finals of American political corruption.
The land of Lincoln boasts some impressive stats. Dick Simpson, a political scientist at the University of Illinois at Chicago, says more than 1,000 people have been convicted in political corruption cases since 1971, including an astonishing 30 aldermen. If Blagojevich goes to prison, he will be the fourth of the last eight governors to wear stripes, joining predecessors George Ryan (racketeering, conspiracy, obstruction), Dan Walker (bank fraud) and Otto Kerner (straight-up bribery). Should he be assigned to the U.S. penitentiary in Terre Haute, Ind., Blagojevich could become the first governor to share a cell with someone he defeated at the polls.
But don't count Louisiana out. According to the Corporate Crime Reporter, it was No. 1 for the period between 1997 and 2006 with 326 federal corruption convictions. That's a rate of 7.67 per 100,000. Illinois had 524 convictions in the same period, but with a larger population, its rate was only 4.68, which puts it an embarrassing sixth. And Louisiana can boast some impressive streaks. In 2001 Jim Brown became the third consecutive insurance commissioner to be convicted. Rep. William Jefferson, who was just defeated for re-election following corruption charges, apparently liked cold, hard cash so much he kept bundles of it in his freezer. His brother, sister and niece recently joined him under indictment. (Jefferson, his brother and niece have pleaded not guilty; his sister has pleaded guilty.)
Corruption in Illinois grows out of a tradition of patronage politics—not just the old Democratic machine in Chicago, but also a Republican machine in the suburbs. Even as old-school politics has faded, however, scandals in Illinois have retained their ward-boss flavor. They still tend to revolve around petty, methodical rake-offs from the quotidian operations of government: liquor licenses, elevator inspections, speeding tickets and, above all, hiring.
The paradigmatic Illinois crook was Paul Powell, who served as secretary of state in the 1960s. When Powell died, his executor found shoeboxes filled with $800,000 in cash (along with 49 cases of whisky and two of creamed corn) in the Springfield hotel room where he lived. The money had been collected in $5 and $10 increments from applicants who wanted to make sure they passed their driving tests. Under the old Richard J. Daley machine, city workers had to kick back about 5 percent of their salaries to the political organization that guaranteed their jobs. When, on a tapped phone line, he allegedly insisted that "you don't just give it away for nothing," Blagojevich was applying an old precept—though possibly for the first time at a senatorial level.
The Louisiana pathology is slightly different. Wayne Parent, a professor of political science at LSU, explains that with the discovery of oil and gas around 1912, politicians in the dirt-poor state suddenly controlled a gold mine in tax revenue. "They could spend this money virtually unsupervised," he says, "as long as they threw enough crumbs to the masses to satisfy them." This was the formula of populist governors Huey Long; his brother, Earl Long; and Edwin Edwards. Louisiana politicians have always liked big bribes for big projects better than crooked little schemes: Edwards, for instance, is serving time for collecting a $400,000 gratuity in exchange for a casino license.
The stylistic differences between Illinois and Louisiana can be described as David Mamet vs. Walker Percy. The corruption culture in Illinois tends to be mingy, pedestrian, shameful. State legislators who sell their votes for $25 cash in an envelope (a scandal of the 1970s) do not tend toward braggadocio. When former House speaker Dan Rostenkowski was caught filching postage stamps from the House post office, he pleaded guilty and apologized.
Louisiana's culture of corruption, by contrast, is flamboyant and shameless. Earl Long once said that Louisiana voters "don't want good government, they want good entertainment." He spent part of his last term in a mental hospital, where his wife had him committed after he took up with the stripper Blaze Starr. When Sen. Allen Ellender died in office in 1972, Governor Edwards didn't try to auction off his seat. He appointed his wife, Elaine, possibly to get her out of town. When Edwards ran for governor again in 1983, he said of the incumbent, "If we don't get Dave Treen out of office, there won't be anything left to steal." Raised among figures like these, Louisianans tend to accept corruption as inevitable and to forgive it easily.
In recent years, however, Illinois and Louisiana seem to be copying each other. With Blagojevich, Illinois corruption has gone carnival. And since Katrina, Louisianans seem to have lost their zest for the big heist. There's been no sympathy for officials caught siphoning disaster funds. It's going to be a close contest again this year, but I'm betting on the Fighting Illini to claim the national championship.