Former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich was recently sentenced to 14 years in prison after being convicted on several corruption charges. Blagojevich is just one of many political figures who have been tried and found wanting in the state of Illinois. In 2007, former Illinois Governor George Ryan began serving a 6 ½ year jail sentence after also being convicted on corruption charges. Before Ryan there was Governor Dan Walker...and so on.
Why does corruption seem to thrive in our wonderful state (and my native Chicago!), and what can citizens do to stop it?
There are primarily two reasons beyond our current political scandals. One reason is that all humans are fallible and have a capacity for evil. Of course, most of us are not corrupt government officials, yet each of us has the ability to do great harm to ourselves and others. Managing the darker realms of ourselves and laboring to keep our inner light shining is hard work, and sadly, sometimes we take the easy way out... especially when it comes to positions of power, riches, and fame.
The second reason behind our current political situation is voter apathy. When voters neglect their duty as citizens and become disenfranchised with the system, it allows and creates corrupt and/or unsuitable individuals to rise to positions of great power where they can then do great damage.
Of course, there are valid and understandable reasons behind voter apathy and feelings of disenfranchisement. Many people think "What good will my one vote do?" or "Nothing is ever going to change our corrupt political system." Certainly it is true that this system has been in place for years and that change is slow, tiresome, and painstaking. Yet what is the alternative? Another Blagojevich, another Ryan... or maybe someone even worse?
I hope not. This past November I was in Mississippi with former Cook County President Bobbi Steele concerning the gubernatorial election between Hattiesburg Mayor Johnny Dupree and Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant. The race was historic because Dupree was the first black candidate to earn a major-party nomination for governor since Reconstruction. In other words, 140 years has passed since Mississippi voters had the opportunity to vote for a black candidate in a statewide election. Talk about disenfranchisement!
I was able to see firsthand how Dupree's campaign ignited citizens across the state. After decades of believing that their vote didn't make a difference, people got involved and registered to vote in droves. Hundreds of people were outside the polls, waiting for their opportunity to exercise their American right... and their American responsibility.
Although Dupree lost the election, the voter turnout was enough to inspire thousands of people. People who hadn't registered to vote since Obama's presidential race showed up to be part of this historic moment, and the good news is that this voter involvement and passion isn't likely to go away overnight. The citizens there are galvanized, proactive, and empowered, and they are hands-on when it comes to their community and their government.
The same needs to be true in Illinois, especially in Chicago. Though most people are overwhelmed with work and family responsibilities, we can't neglect our civic duty and our role as voters in the upcoming election season. By doing so, we cheat not only ourselves but our children and their children as well. But by working together, getting involved, helping at the polls, and encouraging our friends and family to do the same, we can create great and long-lasting changes in our community. Remember, each of us has a voice, and more importantly, each of us has a vote. Just commit a couple of hours twice a year at the polls to make a difference... but if we don't sacrifice a little time now we'll keep getting politicians who do time later.