Corrupt Illinois: Patronage, Cronyism, and Criminality by Thomas J. Gradel and Dick Simpson (review)
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Reviewed by
Thomas J. Gradel and Dick Simpson, Corrupt Illinois: Patronage, Cronyism, and Criminality. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2015. 270pp. $19.95.

Corruption knows no bounds. At least this is the case with Illinois. Chicago is as famous for its corrupt city politics as it is for its food, architecture, and sports. But over time corruption has ebbed beyond its borders and the suburbs of Cook County, infiltrating every corner of Illinois from the lowest town government to the governor, snaring even federal offices that touch on the president of the United States. No branch of government is immune, no level, and no type of or form of corruption beyond the possibility. This is the argument of this entertaining yet sobering account of corruption in the prairie state.

Corrupt Illinois: Patronage, Cronyism, and Criminality is neither the first nor the last word on the history and legacy of corruption in the land of Lincoln. Instead the authors, Thomas Gradel, a media consultant and former staffer to former governor Dan Walker, and Dick Simpson, a University of Illinois at Chicago professor and former Chicago alderman, have produced one of the best documented accounts on the history and extent of corruption in the state. First, as the subtitle describes, the authors define [End Page 124] corruption broadly to include not simply criminal acts of bribery, extortion, office selling, and influence peddling, but also political favoritism, conflicts of interest, and other assorted unethical behavior. Yet only defining corruption as mere criminality, from 1976 to 2012 the Chicago area recorded 1,597 federal corruption convictions, the most of any city in the country. All of Illinois during that time ranked third in federal convictions per capita, right behind the District of Columbia and Louisiana. It was also third in total number of convictions, behind only California and New York. These statistics substantiate that corruption is more than simply anecdotal—its flourishes in the state. But why?

Corruption infused the political culture of Illinois from the start. Gradel and Simpson declare the first stolen election was in 1833 when the town of Chicago sought to incorporate and several of the votes were by individuals ineligible to vote. Governor Matteson left office in 1856, owing the state “a quarter of million dollars for selling false script.” In 1869 fourteen Chicago alderman and Cook Country commissioners were tried for contract rigging. Why this legacy?

The authors invoke political scientist David Elazar’s discussion of the three types of political cultures that exist across the country. Illinois is dominated by an individualistic culture, one seeing politics as less about serving the public than furthering private interests. It envisions government as a necessary evil, one where political decisions are seen as market transactions to exchange personal favors. For reasons not even the authors can explain, from the earliest days of Illinois’ history this individualistic culture has persisted, reinforced both by repeated unethical behavior of public officials and a public tolerant or indifferent to it. So long as this culture of corruption persists, no amount or number of convictions will stem it.

Having established Chicago and Illinois as among the most corrupt governments for the duration of their history, the core of the book tells their sullied story in charming detail. Chapter two focuses on stolen elections and boss politics, detailing mostly the practices of Mayor Richard Daley who also served as chair of the Cook County Democratic Party from 1955 to 1976. The chapter charts the structure of Daley’s machine, how the use of patronage was swapped for votes, campaign contributions, and precinct work. Yet Chicago machine politics goes back to right after the Civil War where Michael McDonald was a party boss employing similar techniques to protect saloons, brothels, and his friends. As for stolen elections, Daley is credited with delivering questionable votes to put Kennedy on top over [End Page 125] Nixon in 1960. Chapter three summarizes the history of corruption in Illinois, noting its legacy downstate and in Springfield. Among the conclusions is that corruption has taken three visible forms: small bribes as pay to play, stealing money from the state by issuing fake warrants or script, and the third is the...