December 9 in Retrospect

It was one week ago today that federal agents appeared on the governor's doorstep to take him into custody. That event, so shocking and yet in many ways so anticipated, has plunged Illinois simultaneously into new levels of paralysis and fervent action. In the blinding glare of national attention, our path to the future is temporarily harder to see.

But before we move too far ahead, we should also note two other reasons for commemorating December 9. It was five years earlier, on December 9, 2003, that the State Officials and Employees Ethics Act was signed into law. The 2003 Ethics Act, as it is commonly known, was enacted, like the 2008 Pay-to-Play law, by the legislature over the governor's veto. The signing ceremony on December 9, 2003 was for an enhancement crafted after a storm of public opinion overcame Senate reluctance, resulting in a law that formed the apparatus of ethics enforcement: the Executive and Legislative Ethics Commissions, the Inspectors General, routine ethics training, and a host of other internal changes designed to ferret out corruption before it reached the scale and scope that typified George Ryan's tenure in public office. Rod Blagojevich signed the new law, the strongest in a generation, on December 9, 2003, five years to the day before he himself was arrested.

The other reason to note December 9 is that on that day, also in 2003, ICPR's co-founder Paul Simon passed away. Though Paul Simon is no longer here with us, his legacy of inspiration continues to guide many who believe that government can be ethical, responsible, and above board.

Now we have a third, far tawdrier, reason to recall December 9. We hope that the date will be remembered mostly not as another step in the final demise of one governor, but in Illinois' forward progress toward a more responsible government. If we in Illinois learn anything from history, it should be that removing one actor from the system will do little to change that system. The events of December 9, 2008, confirmed for many that Rod Blagojevich must go before Illinois' government can right itself. But removing the governor is only one step among many. Until we deal with the culture that embraces unlimited campaign contributions, that allows lobbyists to hide their relationships with clients and officials, that tolerates scorn for FOIA and economic interest disclosure, we as a state will be counting the days until the next Rod Blagojevich comes along.