For more than 25 years, as the main political reporter at ABC 7 in Chicago, I asked politicians from Presidents to park supervisors the tough questions about how they managed their governments and spent your hard-earned tax dollars. I held their feet to the fire. And now, after a short break to recharge my batteries, I'm back on the case.
But I'm changing acronyms-- BGA, the Better Government Association, is replacing ABC-- and my bosses are changing from the shareholders of ABC's parent company, Walt Disney, to the voters and taxpayers of Illinois.
So let's get it on!
The BGA is Chicago's preeminent corruption-busting watchdog group, the civic conscience of a chronically unconscionable polity. So it's with a deep sense of responsibility and a keen knowledge of history that I become its new executive director, the keeper of an idealistic flame that was lit by a courageous band of frustrated Chicagoans who established the organization in 1923, during the corrupt administration of Mayor William "Big Bill" Thompson, who danced to the tune of mob boss Al Capone. And believe me, it wasn't "My Kind of Town."
Over the years the BGA's partnered with news organizations-- TV, radio and print-- to expose corruption in every branch of government: The Statehouse, City Hall, Cook County, Board of Education, Water Reclamation District, O'Hare Airport-- the list goes on and on. Those investigations saved tax dollars, sent sleazebags to jail and won some of journalism's most coveted awards, including Pulitzers and a Peabody.
The BGA speaks truth to power-- no small claim in these shark-infested political waters-- and never wavers from its mission as "an independent, non-partisan government watchdog group that is funded by its members and committed to combating waste, fraud and corruption."
That mission is more important than ever today. Because even though the BGA's flame still burns brightly, 86 years later, the challenge is as daunting as it was back then. One former Illinois governor is in prison and another may be on his way. City Hall's been rocked by one corruption scandal after another. And the feds are all over alleged malfeasance in the Cook County Building.
The BGA, along with many other civic groups and individuals-- including a handful of reform-minded politicians and dedicated editorial writers-- keeps proposing reforms that entrenched political power-brokers, the guardians of the "business as usual" status quo, keep watering down or ignoring altogether.
And decades of journalistic exposes, federal indictments and boisterous pronouncements of civic outrage haven't been able to debunk that preternaturally prescient line from the late North Side alderman Paddy Bauler, who said, for the ages, that "Chicago ain't ready for reform."
But the fight goes on, led by columnists like John Kass, Carol Marin and Mark Brown; civic groups like the BGA, the Campaign for Political Reform and the Civic Federation; newspapers like the Tribune, Sun-Times, Daily Herald and SouthtownStar; and millions of average citizens who, like Howard Beale in the classic movie "Network," are too fed up to take it any more.
I am one of those "fed up" citizens and I am re-entering the fray. But now, with the freedom to advocate and not just report, I am issuing a clarion call to the tens of thousands of like-minded people around the state to stand with me and the BGA against corrupt business as usual.
We are fighting an enemy armed with the power of incumbency, and the riches of unfettered fundraising to hold their ground at all costs. So we need to rearm with the biggest civic guns available.
I will be reaching out to foundations eager to join the fight by underwriting worthwhile investigations and projects; potential donors willing to put enough faith and trust in me and the BGA to help us expand our staff and our scope; journalists-- mainstream, freelance and online (bloggers, come aboard!)-- who want to partner with the BGA to investigate and monitor government at every level; media organizations interested in engaging their readers, listeners and viewers in this epic battle; and students from our esteemed colleges and universities who want to learn as they intern.
Wonderful things are happening around the country in the name of good government: Grants , for instance, to the Huffington Post and ProPublica in New York City to investigate government and hold politicians accountable; here in Chicago, foundations like Joyce, MacArthur and the Chicago Community Trust are investing in good government and new media projects; and the internet is filled with topical stories.
The BGA's always been at "ground zero" in the fight to prove Paddy Bauler wrong, and that's where we'll stay as we build an army to join the crusade against graft, greed, deceit and abuse of power.
The timing is perfect on this, the 100th anniversary of Daniel Burnham's visionary plan to preserve Chicago's lakefront. Burnham, who admonished us to "make no small plans" because "they have no magic to stir one's blood."
U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald said last December that former Governor Rod Blagojevich's alleged corruption spree was enough "to make Abe Lincoln turn over in his grave."
Don't we owe it to Abe to let him rest in peace?
Andy Shaw is a former political reporter at ABC 7 in Chicago. He takes over as executive director of the Better Government Association on June 1.