THE BLOG
04/11/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Did You Hear the One About the Illinois Primary...?

Everyone thought that the whole Gov. Rod Blagojevich madness showed the insanity of Illinois politics.

Everyone, it should be noted, except people from Illinois.

Those of us from Illinois know better. Madness? Oh, tosh, that wasn't madness. It was business as usual. Illinois politics has been a popular form of entertainment before even turn-of-the-century alderman Bathhouse John Coughlin and Hinky Dink Kenna ran the First Ward. (Their annual ball was a major political fundraiser that made Mardi Gras look like a cotillion. Its mingling attendees were gamblers, prostitutes, local businessmen, the local mob and politicians, and it filled the Chicago Coliseum.)

Rod Blagojevich was a rank amateur for Illinois politics. Just take a look at what happened in last Tuesday's state primary. When friends would come to me all outraged by Mr. Blagojevich, I just shrugged and smiled benignly at their over-reaction. I mean, honestly, you should get outraged over something outrageous. Right? Not commonplace. At least last Tuesday's election results gave me a chance to show why no one previously grasped the reason Rod Blagojevich was so ho-hum to people in Illinois.

To be clear, Illinois has had noble politicians. That pull-and-tug of opposites is part of what gives the state its vibrancy. And allows its noble politicians to deal calmly with the real world. Abraham Lincoln was from Illinois. So is Barack Obama.

But Illinois has always been a battle of contrasts. After all, while it encompasses Chicago on the upstate end, the southern tip is below Kentucky.

The world knows of Chicago politics. Boodle, the Chicago slang for graft, has long been its lifeblood. The hilarious play about Chicago politics, Early and Often gets its name from the Chicago admonition for when to vote. (The story concerns what happens when a candidate for alderman dies on election eve.) Written by Barbara Wallace and Thomas R. Wolfe, it perfectly describes what the city's politics are all about: "Why shouldn't dead people have their own alderman?" one character asks, "They've been electing them for years."

Rod Blagojevich? Please, that was nothing. Anyone who thinks politicians everywhere don't say, "What's in it for me?" when agreeing to sell their vote would get laughed out of Illinois. The former governor just had the bad luck to do it a) for a Senate seat previously held by the President of the United States. And b) on tape.

But last Tuesday? I was back in Chicago for the state primary, and that was Illinois politics at its finest. Don't even bother keeping a scorecard. You won't be able to follow it. Just appreciate the highlights.

Pull up a chair. Get out the cheese dip.

Last Tuesday, Scott Lee Cohen was elected to be the Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor. You know, the person a heartbeat away from becoming governor. Or in position of becoming governor if the sitting-governor is caught trying to sell a Senate seat and gets impeached. It's not a small potatoes position.

Who is Scott Lee Cohen, you ask? It's a fair question, considering that most people in Illinois didn't know, even though he won the Democratic nod for lieutenant governor. He was a pawnbroker. Also a cleaning supply distributor. His political experience was -- well, none. But the Democratic voters of Illinois, in this era of not liking professional politicians, elected him.

Just to make things fair, it should be noted that the Republican candidate for lieutenant governor, Jason Plummer, is a 27-year-old lumber company executive. He, too, has zero political experience. "I've got a lot of experience that is necessary," he said with a straight face. "I've run a business." Just like the guy who runs the local Kinko's. But the voters of Illinois, in this era of not...well, you know -- nominated him. His utter lack of credentials for being a step away from running the entire state of Illinois, however, caught a break. Because there's Scott Lee Cohen.

(In fairness to these two candidates, and to the perception of Illinois politicians, it's the public who voted these fellows in.)

You see, the day after Scott Lee Cohen won the nomination, journalists delivered some really bad news. The headline of the Chicago Tribune read: "Domestic battery arrest surfaces against lieutenant governor nominee Cohen."

By the way, that's not the bad news.

You see, only five years ago, he was arrested for what he said was an argument with his then-drunken girlfriend. He had earlier mentioned this, but none of the other candidates or journalists paid any attention to it. Apparently because he appeared so inconsequential. Ha, the joke's sure on them!

But don't get too complacent. That's not the bad news either.

You see, it turned out that his drunken girlfriend also had an arrest record as a former prostitute. Mr. Cohen said he wasn't aware of that. When he met her, it was at the Eden Spa, where she'd given him a "straight massage."

That's not the bad news. Honest.

You see, the arrest records show she charged him with pulling a knife on her and holding it to her throat, and then shoving her head into the wall.

Happily, it was a mere misdemeanor charge, and that got dropped when his girlfriend didn't appear in court. But the thing is, although that was the bad news in the newspaper that day -- the story actually gets worse.

That's right. All this isn't yet the bad news.

You see, the bad news is that the next day, the ex-wife of Scott Lee Cohen (this is different from the ex-girlfriend) appeared with him to stand by her ex-man. She explained that while she held to allegations she herself made in December that Cohen was $54,000 behind in child support payments, the earlier incident with the knife and head-bashing (that she wasn't present at) was not really a big deal, that his actions that night weren't typical of her ex-husband. It only happened because he was using steroids at the time.

All you guys who play Tammy Wynette records around the house all day as a subtle hint to your wife to stand by her man, you might just want to rethink that.

I have a favorite quote in all this. "It was a short period of time," ex-wife Debra York-Cohen said about the knife wielding and head bashing, "and it's certainly not something the people of Illinois have to be concerned with."

Nah, why should they? He's only one election away from being a heartbeat from running the state based on his talent, experience and good sense.

Except that wasn't the favorite quote I was referring to. It's when Mr. Cohen himself told the Tribune, "My honesty and integrity in putting it out there is the best thing that could happen to the party."

Then again, he also said he didn't think any of this would hurt the party's chances in the general election, so you have to figure his judgment isn't too great there, either.

And just to tie a nice ribbon on things, that convicted ex-prostitute, ex-girlfriend who didn't show up in court -- she actually surfaced a few days later and spoke to the press. (Go figure. Hey, when it rains, it pours.) She explained that she didn't feel her ex-boyfriend was qualified to be lieutenant governor.

Noooo?? Really??

With all this new-found attention, you can bet that there is one incredibly unhappy man now on the Illinois state ticket.

Sorry, I don't mean Scott Lee Cohen. No, it's Governor Pat Quinn, running for re-election.

Here's why. In Illinois politics, yeah, the governor and lieutenant governor candidates run as a ticket -- even though the governor doesn't have any say at all in picking his running mate. He's stuck with whoever primary voters elect as his partner in a totally separate race. But in the general election, they run tied together. The law was changed about 35 years ago when Illinois lawmakers fixed a silly mess -- and created a far worse one.

There's a happy end to this story for Pat Quinn, though. Scott Lee Cohen dropped out of the race on Sunday. (He announced it during the Super Bowl. Hoping perhaps no reporters would show up. Not too surprisingly, they did.) "The last thing I ever, ever wanted to do," he said, "was to put the people of Illinois in jeopardy in any way."

Like he had put his ex-girlfriend. It's good when someone grows.

And by the way, just so you don't get sloppy and think you now have a grasp on Illinois politics -- I haven't even started. Because all that may not have even been the worst political news on election day!

And it was also for Democrats. It was a really messy election day for Democrats in Illinois.

This story, though not nearly as juicy, was for a far bigger office. The U.S. Senate, for which current State Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias won the Democratic primary. That's the seat once held by Barack Obama. Now held by the semi-eminent Roland Burris

Don't worry, I'll keep it short. Novices to Illinois politics can only handle so much before their heads explode.

But first, some brief history. Bear with me.

A few years back, Rose Laws was a big-time madam in Chicago, with mob ties. (There's something about prostitutes and Chicago politics that just seems a well-blended match.) Her appointments book showed high-profile clients from business, sports, politics, judges, high society, and so much more. In 2002, she was convicted to 22 months in federal prison. Her mob protector, Michael "Jaws" Giorango, was found guilty of involvement in a national prostitution ring and got six months in jail.

Giorango today is a high-falutin real estate investor. He's got office buildings that are rented out by all manner of Illinois politicians. Nothing illegal about this or even improper, it's just office space in his buildings. Of course, to get those buildings, convicted ex-mobster "Jaws" Giorango had to get an $11 million loan. Which he did. From the Broadway Bank. Probably on his good name and standing.

The bank is family owned. By the Giannoulias family. And the loan was signed by Alexi Giannoulias.

You remember him, don't you? Alexi Giannoulias is the Democratic Party's candidate for U.S. Senate.

In fairness, State Treasurer Giannoulias hasn't done the slightest thing wrong in office or to get the nomination. The voters selected him fairly. And there may not even be a single thing wrong about signing a loan. It's just - well, you know. It just not the sort of thing you want on your resume when trying to run for the Senate and you want to discuss jobs, health care, the economy and war, and your opponent is bringing up that you signed an $11 million loan for ex-mob protector Michael "Jaws" Giorango. It just looks lousy. Even if it's pure as the driven snow.

Especially when it's on the heels of the ticket's association with Scott Lee Cohen. On the other hand, Mr. Cohen makes a loan to Michael "Jaws" Giorango look almost okay by comparison.

So, anyway, that was just last Tuesday in Illinois politics.

Maybe now, people can get at least just the smallest sense of why people in Illinois knew that what Rod Blagojevich is alleged to have done was wrong, but didn't get too worked up by it. And why Blagojevich didn't think they should.

And this is just touching the surface of Illinois politics. I haven't even told you about Paul Powell, the former Illinois Secretary of State, who never earned more than $30,000 a year and once said, "There's only one thing worse than a defeated politician, and that's a broke one." After Powell died in 1970, he left an estate of $2 million.

Of which $800,000 was found hidden in his closet, stuffed in shoeboxes.

By the way, Democrats could still win the senate seat and governorship in Illinois. This is Illinois, after all. But if they do lose those races in the fall, you are now fully informed and ahead of the game: and you know that the reason has zero to do with the economy, jobs, health care, Barack Obama, tea bags or anything that any analyst tries to sell you that is sitting outside the state's borders. It's because Democratic voters in the primary lived up to the convoluted standards of Illinois politics and went loony. And in the process, put up a bizarrely screwy ticket.

But this is Illinois. Tickets get fixed all the time.