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Ways & Means: The Ryan Ruins

The conviction of former Gov. George Ryan for racketeering and fraud caps a political career that could best be described as Illinois Personified. Has there ever been a pol who better embodies all that is Illinois politics than George Ryan?

From the bare-knuckle Kankakee Machine that he grew up on to his tenure as speaker of the Illinois House, George Ryan ascended the political ladder as a hardcore semi-Downstate conservative who was always more Cook County than Cairo. He patiently served two terms as lieutenant governor and two terms as secretary of state - 16 years! - awaiting his chance to be the boss man. And even then, he only beat congressman Glenn Poshard by a 51-47 percent margin, by running to the left of his Democratic opponent.

Ryan's steadfast conservatism morphed into a willingness to tack whichever way best served his friends and his own political opportunities. As governor, he reneged on campaign promises on such issues as taxes and the expansion of O'Hare airport, and then insisted he had the right to change his mind despite what he told voters. He plunged the state into precarious financial straits and tarnished the most courageous and noble act of his political career when he enacted a moratorium on the death penalty in a hamhanded way and later tried to use the action for sympathy before the jury that convicted him.

A federal investigation that began as a probe into the selling of drivers licenses in exchange for cash that state employees could then donate to Ryan's campaign fund turned led to a full-scale unraveling of a Secretary of State's office deemed "a criminal enterprise" by authorities and a governorship that doled out favorable contracts to friends and contributors. Ryan's way of doing business was Illinois's way of doing business writ large, taken to a level that even shocked longtime wheeler-dealers, with the help of right-hand man and fellow felon Scott Fawell.

Who George Ryan is is not a mystery. How he was able to operate with impunity all these years is more so. Some of the more interesting punditry offers some clues.

Eric Zorn at Change of Subject offers a poignant commentary on George Ryan as the ordinary and exceedingly flawed man, and exceedingly rough and pragmatic politician and dealmaker, we have come to know over the years, as opposed to the kindly grandfather do-dadding around the house portrayed by his press agent, Michael Sneed.

Particularly striking is Zorn's recollection of speaking to Ryan when the former governor was deciding what to do with the death penalty.

"I spoke with him several times, though not at length, when he was going back and forth on whether or not to empty out Death Row in the final months of his term as governor. And what struck me was always how little depth there was to his thinking - how tenuous his grasp was on the essential facts and arguments relating to the issue that was dominating his daily life then."

Burt Constable at the Daily Herald recalls a George Ryan who was reviled by many when he was Speaker of the Illinois House - particularly women angry about his role quashing the Equal Rights Amendment in Illinois.

"It was single-handedly George Ryan who stopped it as speaker of the House, and he was very proud that he stopped it," Gayle Guthrie, president of ERA Illinois, told Constable. "He was a bully, and when he won he was quite gleeful about it."

ERA Now treasurer Karen Boehning told Constable that "There is not a philosophical bone in his body. He was an opportunist."

Kristen McQueary at the Daily Southtown somehow still thinks it was George Ryan's great big heart that tripped him up. She must be a graduate of the Michael Sneed School of Chicago Journalism.

"This was not an elitist who flaunted wealth," McQueary writes. "He was a grandpa from Kankakee with a pudgy wife. The spoils often referenced - corporate jets, premier sports tickets, Jamaican vacations, steak dinners - don't strike me as ostentatious. He was the governor of a major state. Your average state lawmaker is privy to the same recompense, and congressmen, more."

Ryan may not have flaunted his wealth, but he flaunted his power. He delivered wealth to his friends - in multi-million dollar state contracts paid for with our money. McQueary fails to see that the point isn't what Ryan got as much as what he gave (in return for what he got - elected.)

"One of the personal checks shown to jurors as part of the 'spoils' was a $1,000 boost for his daughter," McQueary writes. "One of his kids apparently married a bum who liked to gamble, and so Ryan helped them when he could. What father wouldn't?"

A law-abiding father, that's what father! Ryan "boosted" his daughters in part by shaving money out of Phil Gramm's presidential campaign fund!

"Think of your own life and the people with whom you would surround yourself if elected governor: I'd sure like my best friend from high school, now an attorney, to provide trusted counsel," she continues. "What if she owned a timeshare in Mexico? Would I have to pay her for my room-and-board? It seems a bit absurd."

If you were elected governor, Kristen, your best friend could provide counsel as your private attorney. But would you just turn over the general counsel's job to your pal? And what if your pal, like Ryan's boyhood friend, Dean Bauer, then quashed investigations into, say, a license-for-bribes scheme involving an illegally licensed trucker who killed six kids?

McQueary goes on to make the tired, cynical argument that this is how politics is done in Illinois, and that somehow now the ethical lines have shifted. I wonder how many Chicago journalists realize that in many states and cities, politics is not done this way at all and things still manage to get done. Or that the laws haven't changed at all - find me a federal statute Ryan was charged under that is a recent change of law. Pols have been sent to jail for these types of misdeeds for as long as they have been perpetrating them.

McQueary's column is an important one, though, because it exposes the shocking mindset of many Chicago journalists whose training is so much different than mine. It makes you wonder: If McQueary had been tipped off about some of Ryan's shady deals, would she have thought it not worthy of reporting?

The Better Government Association, by contrast, can chronicle nearly 25 years of investigating Ryan, going back to Ryan blocking as House speaker an investigation into a nursing home rife with safety and health violations. "Shortly after, Ryan's Kankakee pharmacy regained the $60,000 per year of business it had previously lost to the owner of that nursing home facility," the BGA says.

Further BGA investigations of Ryan commenced in 1993, 1994, 1996 and 2001, "mostly focusing on his coercive fundraising from employees and those he regulated," the BGA says. The BGA also sued Ryan twice over corruption in the secretary of state's office, in 1998 and 2000.

While the BGA partnered with media outlets for some of its investigations, the media largely turned a blind eye. And, no surprise, so did most of the state's public officials.

Jeff Trigg at Illinoize takes exposes the empty rhetoric of Gov. Rod Blagojevich's attack on Judy Baar Topinka for not "lifting a finger" while Ryan ran loose.

The Illinois Campaign for Political Reform tries to fix the problem.

And the Onion has the man on the street interviews no other paper seems able to get.

For a review of the media's coverage of the Ryan jury mess, check out The Papers.



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Posted on April 21, 2006


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