July 31, 2010
A Political Soap Opera with Few RivalsBy Chad Stafko
If you want to find the most captivating and bizarre political landscape in the country, then you need look no further than the Great State of Illinois.
What makes this state's politics so fascinating is not just that Illinois is the home state of Barack Obama. Obama may indeed not even be the most intriguing political figure in the state, as the competition for such a title is fierce. Indeed, the political soap opera that is Illinois politics is a combination of an oddball ex-governor, a headline-grabbing Senate race, and a governor's race in which the winner will inherit a state in fiscal shambles.
At the top of this toxic soup is the embattled ex-governor Rod Blagojevich, who managed to continue Illinois' tradition of scandal in the governor's mansion (actually, Blagojevich spent little time in the governor's mansion which is in the state capital, Springfield, as he was most often in Chicago, which Illinoisans will happily tell you is not the capital).
Blagojevich's corruption trial is near an end in Chicago, as he attempts to defend himself against allegations that he put then-Senator Obama's seat up for sale to the highest bidder when Obama was elected President.
Blago has been anything but a quiet defender. He appeared on the television show Celebrity Apprentice, as a contestant, and rarely encounters a microphone without taking the opportunity to proclaim his innocence.
But Blagojevich is far from alone when it comes to the rich history of Illinois governors having issues with the law.
As a December 2008 Time magazine article noted, the state has had seven governors subject to arrest or indictment, with five of those political scandals taking place over the last fifty years.
With Blago gone, at least as the governor, Democrat Pat Quinn now serves as the Chief Executive of Illinois. However, Quinn is facing Republican U.S. Representative Bill Bradley in the November election. Most polls show Bradley with a slight edge.
The lucky winner of this race will be the governor of a state that is in fiscal shambles. The state faces a budget deficit of $11 billion in the next fiscal year. Illinois has an unemployment rate of 10.4 percent versus the national rate of 9.5 percent, tenth highest among the states. There are unpaid bills, too: Illinois owes its schools more than $700 million for the past school year.
Then there is the election for Obama's old Senate seat. The current occupant is Roland Burris, appointed to the seat by then-Governor Rod Blagojevich in January 2009, creating a firestorm of controversy. Burris was cleared of ethics charges in June 2009.
It's the race for the U.S. Senate seat that was formally held by Obama and currently held by Burris that is garnering the most attention. Aside from the Special Election distraction that is being sorted out, the race is between current Illinois Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias, a democrat, and Republican U.S. House member Mark Kirk.
Giannoulias is well connected with President Obama and has played basketball with the President on several occasions (Giannoulias played a year of professional basketball in Greece) and Giannoulias has spent time at the White House. The President is also scheduled to stump for Giannoulias in August when Obama visits Chicago.
As you might expect in Illinois politics, Giannoulias has a rather interesting history.
After earning his law degree at Tulane University, Giannoulias returned to Chicago to work at the community bank owned by his family since 1979, Broadway Bank. Giannoulias eventually rose to the rank of Senior Loan Officer during his stint at the bank from 2002-2006.
On April 23, 2010, the bank was seized by the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation and its assets acquired by MB Financial Bank. The ties Giannoulias still has at the bank are a bit murky.
Republican Senate candidate Mark Kirk has plenty of his own issues. While many Republican mid-term candidates are trumpeting their conservative credentials, Kirk may very well be one of the most liberal Republicans running for office. Kirk announced earlier this month that he would support President Obama's choice of Elana Kagan for the United States Supreme Court. In addition, while serving in the U.S. House, Kirk was given scores of 40 and 48 out of 100, by the American Conservative Union.
Adding to Kirk's unique character is that Kirk has admitted to misstatements regarding his military experience, mistakes that were largely embellishments of his actual duties and accomplishments.
As Election Day draws near, for political drama, stay tuned to the sordid affairs that make up politics in Illinois.
Chad Stafko is a writer and political consultant living in the Midwest. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.