Daley changing "politics as usual" in Illinois
You could physically feel the political ground shifting last week as Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley announced he would no longer accept campaign contributions from city contractors and members of their immediate families.
The city's news media have been agitating for reform of the "pay to play" system for as long as anyone can remember. And Daley, who had already limited contributions to $1,500, finally gave in to what is at the very least the perceived reality that political contributions are an essential part of doing business in that town.
That same perception also applies to state government, so it's probably safe to assume that it won't be long before the media and reformers begin to ask why a similar ban isn't in place at the state level.
The Chicago Tribune reported not long ago that more than a quarter of individuals and business which have given at least $50,000 to Governor Rod Blagojevich's campaign fund have also received state business in the past two years. The Trib also found that from July 1 of 2003 to the end of June, 2004, "at least 38 of the 51 businesses awarded professional and artistic contracts worth $3 million from agencies closely linked to the governor's office had also donated" to his campaign fund. The Trib and the Sun-Times have identified hundreds of thousands of dollars in contributions from contractors, vendors and state board and commission members to the governor, and a probe of the governor's office is now underway by the attorney general's office to determine if there is any connection.
Governor Blagojevich has claimed that his fundraising juggernaut is completely separate from all decisions his administration makes regarding state contracts and appointments to state boards and commissions, but he's raised so much money so fast from the players that he cannot possibly escape the perception of a connection. "The appearance is just as corrosive as the reality," political studies professor and reform advocate Kent Redfield told the Trib. "The more times the public sees linkages, whatever the reason for linkages, that increases their cynicism."
The reformers also have a perfect vehicle to push their ideas. Sen. Miguel del Valle (D-Chicago) has introduced legislation that would bar statewide officials, legislators and candidates from accepting any contributions from contractors or from firms and people who are just bidding on contracts. Del Valle said recently that he is dead serious about passing his bill, and Mayor Daley's actions last week will make it even more difficult for the governor and others to keep it bottled up in committee. Rep. John Fritchey (D-Chicago) has similar legislation.
The governor's greatest strength up until now has been the widely held perception by voters that he is a breath of fresh air in an otherwise stale and corroded system. He has championed this image of reform and renewal almost to the point of self-parody. But as anyone who watched the presidential campaign last year understands, George W. Bush's political advisor Karl Rove came up with
just about the most effective way of destroying a political opponent known to mankind: Undermine your adversary's greatest strength and all he'll be left with is his weaknesses.
John Kerry believed his honorable service in Vietnam would inoculate himself against charges that he wouldn't be strong enough against the terrorists and wouldn't have the strength to see things through in Iraq. A month of pummeling by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth about whether he really earned his Silver Star, his Bronze Star and his Purple Hearts raised so many questions in voters' minds that his prized asset all of a sudden wasn't worth very much. In the end, Kerry wasn't considered sufficiently trustworthy or tough to handle our twin wars.
Back in Illinois, this contractor issue isn't going away, and it is seriously threatening to undermine Governor Blagojevich's public reputation. If he allows the issue to fester and the media and his new political opponents continue to exploit it to his disadvantage, he risks becoming "just another politician" in the voters' minds. And then all of his other weaknesses will be that much easier for his legions of critics to exploit.
If I was forced to bet, I'd wager that the governor takes a poll and follows Daley's lead soon.
Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter. He can be reached at capitolfax.blogspot.com.