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Illinois, From Reagan to Obama

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In the modern era, Illinois lays claim to two of the giant figures in presidential history. President Ronald Reagan (born and raised here) inspired a nation to dream, revitalized and re-defined conservative social and fiscal policy, and more than anyone else ended the Cold War. President Obama, at least Reagan's equal in his ability to incite the masses, is only midway through his first term but thus far has successfully charted an ambitious course for the nation that is, in many ways, the opposite of Reagan's -- and who, in any event, will always loom historic as the nation's first African American commander-in-chief.

Yet during this window of time that Illinois has celebrated the ascendancy of two of our own to the nation's highest office, we have watched as two of our governors have been indicted and convicted by federal prosecutors. Governor George Ryan's administration was rocked by scandal related to the trading of campaign contributions or outright bribes for official governmental action. Governor Rod Blagojevich, who succeeded Ryan on a platform of reform, has been charged with 24 counts of similar corruption, including infamous allegations relating to his appointment of a replacement for President Obama's senate seat. (For the sake of fairness and accuracy, thus far Blagojevich has been convicted only of 1 count of lying to the FBI; the jury is out, literally, on the remaining charges, which will be re-tried this April.)

When I served as the House Prosecutor who tried Governor Blagojevich in the Impeachment Trial before the Illinois Senate, I recall asking myself this question: How did a state that produced two presidential giants end up, in that same time period, with two felons for chief executives?

Some have incorrectly blamed the prosecutor, U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald. But Mr. Fitzgerald is no ladder-climber; he is not remotely ambitious in the political sense of that word. Perhaps his read of federal corruption laws is more expansive than that of his predecessors, but neither governor he has indicted could possibly claim that the acts they were accused of committing were thought to be legal. However you read the "honest services" federal law or RICO, nobody ever thought it was okay to trade campaign contributions or bribes for a driver's license or the governor's signature on a piece of legislation -- much less an appointment to the United States Senate.

Nor is it as simple as blaming money. Yes, both Governors Ryan and Blagojevich built up gigantic campaign war chests that dwarfed those of their opponents. And yes, if we went to a system of publicly-financed elections, the motivation to build those war chests would cease and, along with it, at least some of the motivation to act corruptly in the first place. But the day we eliminate money from the equation is the day we eliminate the right of individuals to advocate for their chosen candidates. Sensible campaign contributions may help, but there is equally compelling evidence to the contrary, and at the end of the day, no amount of contribution limits will stop those politicians who are willing to break the law.

The answer, fortunately, is much simpler. The blame lies with us. The citizens of Illinois. The voters who elected these individuals. We need to demand more of our candidates. We need to ask hard questions and demand answers. Not one-line slogans. Not sound bites. Substantive answers to important questions.

We failed to do so -- twice in a row. Recently, we had a gubernatorial election featuring two honorable individuals, State Senate Bill Brady and current Governor Pat Quinn, who completed the Blagojevich term. Quinn, the Democrat, bucked the national trend and narrowly won the race. He did so with an open pledge to raise the income tax, which is not exactly a recipe for political success. He was grilled on the details of his plan, much as Senator Brady was grilled on his pledge to cut ten percent from spending across the board, the details of which were far more complicated than the sound bite.

To my mind, whatever you may think of the outcome of that election, we did better this time. But there will always be more work ahead. If we in Illinois want to continue to breed inspirational leaders like Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama, we have to remember to do our homework.

David Ellis is an award-winning author and was the Impeachment Prosecutor who convicted Governor Rod Blagojevich before the Illinois Senate in 2009. His new novel of political corruption, Breach of Trust, will be published on February 3.