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When Another Senate Seat Was Up for Sale

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A hundred years ago, political tensions were running high in Illinois. Everyone wanted to know the answer to one suspenseful question: Who would be the new U.S. Senator from Illinois?

The struggle to answer that question would stretch on for four years, as charges of bribery and corruption rocked Springfield and Washington. It seemed that a U.S. Senate seat was up for sale. The resulting scandal continues to echo a century later, as Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich faces charges of putting a price on the Senate seat vacated by President-elect Barack Obama.

In 1909, the election of a senator wasn't a question of counting ballots from voting booths around Illinois. This was back in the days when state legislatures elected the men who went to Washington to serve in the U.S. Senate. It didn't really matter that incumbent Sen. Albert J. Hopkins had won more votes than anyone else - a plurality of 43 percent - in the state's Republican primary. The primary was just advisory. The only votes that counted were the ones cast by members of the Illinois General Assembly in Springfield. Outgoing President Theodore Roosevelt said the legislators should follow the will of the people and re-elect Hopkins, but they had ideas of their own.

As the voting got under way on Jan. 19, 1909, Hopkins was in the lead. But he just couldn't muster a majority of votes in the Illinois House and Senate, where the Republican and Democratic parties were each splintered into warring factions, all of them jockeying for position. Politicians met behind closed doors and tried to work out deals. Legislators cast ballot after ballot and a few votes shifted, but no winner emerged.

On March 4, Hopkins' term in the Senate expired, but still the voting went on. Finally, after 94 inconclusive ballots, the controversial boss of the Chicago Republican machine, Congressman William Lorimer, threw his hat into the ring.

Like Blagojevich after him, Lorimer was famous for his hair. Nicknamed the "Blond Boss," he was also legendary for doling out patronage jobs and political favors. Despised by reformers, including those within his own party who resented his control, Lorimer practiced a style of politics that critics called "Lorimerism" or "bossism." Lorimerism was not an ideology - it was just a way of making deals and running political organizations. The Chicago Tribune and other reform-minded newspapers in the city had been outspoken foes of Lorimer for years. In Lorimer's eyes, the newspapers were all part of a "trust press" that was bent on destroying him.

If Lorimer was such a bad guy, how did he manage to remain a powerbroker in Illinois politics for so long? Maybe it was all those favors he had granted over the years. He was popular among certain Republicans, especially the European immigrants on Chicago's West Side. As Joel Arthur Tarr explained in his 1971 biography, A Study in Boss Politics: William Lorimer of Chicago, the calls for reform from wealthier Republicans and newspapers such as the Tribune were often tainted by a bias against immigrants and working-class folks.

During the 1909 Senate race, Lorimer waited until he was sure he had enough votes to triumph. On May 26, a majority of 108 legislators - including 33 Democrats who'd suddenly decided to cross party lines - voted to send Mr. Lorimer to Washington.

Just before the roll call, the leader of the pro-Lorimer Democratic faction, Lee O'Neill Browne, said it was high time that Illinois politicians elected someone to the vacant Senate seat. "The people of the State want results," he said. "You cannot cash theories. You cannot cash dreams ... His [Lorimer's] word is as good as a gold bond. You can cash it any place - among his enemies or among his friends."

George W. English, a Democrat who opposed Lorimer, retorted: "You can say that ... principles cannot be cashed and that dreams cannot be cashed. What, then, can be 'cashed' on the floor of this assembly? Nothing but votes, I take it."

As it turned out, some of the legislators were allegedly cashing in. Lorimer took his seat in Washington, but 11 months later, the Tribune published a bombshell story under the front-page headline: "Democratic Legislator Confesses He Was Bribed to Vote for Lorimer for United States Senator. Charles A. White, Member of Illinois Assembly, Tells How Support Was Bought. Gives $1,000 As Price."

The revelation that a legislator had been bribed to vote for Lorimer set off a series of investigations, hearings and trials. Seven legislators were accused of taking bribes - money that supposedly originated in a secret Illinois fund known as the "jackpot." Edward Hines, the owner of a Chicago lumber company, was accused of raising money for the Lorimer bribes, though he denied it. Legislator Robert E. Wilson earned the nickname "Bathroom Bob" for taking a bribe in a hotel washroom. Browne allegedly handed out the cash, remarking "Here is the Lorimer money," but he was acquitted of bribery.

When Theodore Roosevelt and Lorimer were both invited to attend a dinner at Chicago's Hamilton Club, the ex-president refused to sit at the same table with the senator. The club withdrew its invitation to Lorimer. Roosevelt spoke at the dinner, condemning the Illinois General Assembly "whose doings have been exposed as guilty of the foulest and basest corruption, and therefore of the most infamous treason to American institutions."

The U.S. Senate held hearings, but the investigating committee did not even bother looking at any evidence about that so-called "jackpot." The panel exonerated Lorimer, and sent its report to the full Senate for a vote. In a private letter he wrote at the time, President William Howard Taft said powerful interests were protecting Lorimer. "There is, in my judgment, ample evidence to require the vacation of his seat," Taft wrote, "but he commands the support of the Packers of Chicago, of the Lumbering industry of the whole country, the oleomargerine people and the Brewing interest."

Sen. Elihu Root urged the Senate to "purge itself of this foul conspiracy," but senators voted 46-40 to let Lorimer remain in his seat. In his book, Tarr argues that some Senators may have been put off by the zeal of the Tribune's attack against Lorimer.

But that vote was not the end of the controversy. The Illinois Senate held its own hearings, and a new witness came forward: Charles S. Funk of International Harvester said Hines had asked him to pony up $10,000 for a $100,000 Lorimer election fund.

The Illinois Senate committee concluded that Lorimer wouldn't have been elected with the help of those bribes. Now the U.S. Senate took up the case again, starting a whole new investigation, with 186 witnesses and 9,000 pages of testimony. At the end of all that, the special committee voted 5-3 to exonerate Lorimer. Some newspapers called it "a second coat of whitewash."

When it was Lorimer's turn to defend himself on the floor of the Senate, he spoke for 14 hours over three days. Pacing, gesticulating vigorously, brandishing books above his head, Lorimer denounced his denouncers, saving some of his bitterest venom for the press. At times, his voice rose to a shriek. He insisted that Democrats had voted for him in Springfield because they were his friends, not because they'd been bribed. They were simply showing appreciation for all the political favors he had done over the years, he said, explaining, "I have always justified myself on the ground of helping a fellow man."

As he concluded, on July 13, 1912, Lorimer lowered his voice. "If God is my judge and some day I must be judged by Him, I know that no man cast a corrupt vote for Lorimer," he said. "Resign in the face of that knowledge? Of that conviction? No! No! No! I'll not resign! If I go from this body, it is because more senators vote in favor of that resolution than against it. My exit will not be because of fear, because I am not a coward. It will be because of the cowardice of the senate of the United States." And then, as Lorimer sat down, his blond hair damp with sweat, he said, "I am ready."

The silence that followed was broken only by the sound of the senators casting their votes. All but two of the 23 freshmen who had joined the Senate since the previous vote on Lorimer sided against him. The final tally was 55-28 in favor of the resolution "That corrupt methods and practices were employed in the election of William Lorimer to the senate of the United States from the state of Illinois, and that his election therefore was invalid."

Trying his best to smile, Lorimer quietly got up from his chair and walked out of the Senate for the last time. People could be heard crying, and even some of Lorimer's critics expressed sympathy. "I've no doubt it's just, but I can't help feeling sorry for the man," said someone in the galleries.

The Tribune gloated in its victory. Its news story on the following day began: "The great fight for civic decency and against corruption ... has triumphed ... Thus has ended successfully a long drawn out struggle begun and carried on by THE TRIBUNE to cleanse the United State of the evil of Lorimerism."

Although Lorimer's supporters greeted him in Chicago like a conquering hero, many newspapers expressed relief that the ordeal was over. "A personally clean and honest man, William Lorimer was clearly a product of corrupt political methods and unworthy to hold a seat in the United States senate," the Seattle Post-Intelligencer commented. "The circumstances of his election shocked the country and cast reproach upon the state of Illinois."

Since Lorimer's election in 1909 had been declared null and void, the Illinois General Assembly needed to vote all over again for someone to fill his Senate seat. On March 26, 1913, legislators in Springfield picked Lawrence Yates Sherman to fill the remaining two years of Lorimer's Senate term.

That was the last time any state legislature elected anyone to the U.S. Senate. Even before the Lorimer scandal, many people had been calling for a change in the way senators were chosen. Congress approved the 17th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1912, in the midst of the Lorimer case, and it was ratified by the states in 1913. From now on, the people of the United States would vote directly for their senators.

The new senator from Illinois, Sherman, was fine with that change. He hoped it might even clean up Illinois politics. "The Illinois legislature has been debauched by senatorial elections time out of mind," he said. "Candidates were picked without regard to fitness as lawmakers, but because they would be for this or that candidate for senator."

The Seventeenth Amendment also gave states the option of letting their governors fill Senate vacancies - "the legislature of any State may empower the executive thereof to make temporary appointments until the people fill the vacancies by election as the legislature may direct" - and that's the part of the law causing so much trouble right now in Illinois.

Alas, corrupt politicians always seem to find a way to sneak around reforms. That's not to say further ethics laws wouldn't be useful. Illinois still has no cap on the size of campaign contributions, and the old traditions of political deal-making persist in Springfield and Chicago.

The Blagojevich case is not an exact replay of the Lorimer scandal, but it's easy to see Blagojevich as a classic Illinois politician very much in the Lorimer mold - someone who wants something in return for every job, contract, appointment and favor he doles out. That's the essence of Illinois politics, and it hasn't changed all that much in a hundred years.