I was born in Chicago. The year was 1960, and I no doubt voted for John F. Kennedy for president.
When I worked in Illinois thirty years later, the political process was often explained to me as a contest over which set of county officials — Democratic Cook or Republican DuPage — could stay up the latest on election night to manufacture the greater number of votes.
Such is the reputation of Chicago and Illinois. Corruption remains an integral part of the political culture.
Today, the state’s previous governor has retired to a prison cell. The current governor is the target of an ongoing criminal probe. State government — though controlled wholly by the Democrats — is wholly gridlocked.
Worse yet, as a report by the Commercial Club of Chicago bluntly puts it: “Illinois is headed toward financial implosion.”
This is the environment from which Illinois Senator Barack Obama’s presidential candidacy springs. He’s worked in Chicago politics and served in the state legislature down in Springfield. That doesn’t make Obama corrupt. Guilt doesn’t spread from one person to another by mere association.
But his experience does tell us that when Senator Obama talks about the need for change, he ought to know what he’s talking about.
Further, agree or not with Obama’s precise prescriptions for change, it is clear to the overwhelming majority of Americans that change is needed in Washington. Such change is also obviously — and just as desperately — needed in Illinois.
Toward this end, a question that will appear on the state’s ballot this November asks voters whether a constitutional convention should be called to make fundamental changes in the way politics and governance are done. This question is automatically placed before voters every 20 years. In 1988, voters said no. This year, polls show two-to-one voter support, but with a large percentage of undecided voters.
Citizen leaders from across the political spectrum — and the rare politician like Democratic Lt. Governor Patrick Quinn — favor a constitutional convention. This support appears to be based not on ideological hankerings, but on the obvious fact that Ol’ Honest Abe Lincoln wouldn’t recognize today’s Land of Lincoln.
In addition, there’s a near-universal belief that all hope for reform lies with the people and not their pretend representatives in Springfield.
A network of 300 religious, labor and civic groups, United Power for Action and Justice, argues for the convention on the grounds that it “would scare the devil out of the politicians and lobbyists,” and “allow citizens to make some fundamental, structural changes in the way Springfield does (or doesn’t do) business,” such as “recall, term limits, voter initiative and more.”
The Illiniois Citizens Coalition, a conservative group, supports the convention for many of the same reasons.
Some worry that the “good guys” cannot “control” the convention against the state’s powerful special interests and political insiders. Certainly, there is no guarantee that citizens will prevail. But, with a constitutional convention, citizens at least have a chance to enact reforms. A No vote, securing continuation of the status quo, offers citizens nothing at all.
So, as the candidate of change, where does Obama stand?
He has not said.
But we do know that his chief advisor, David Axelrod, is working with the Alliance to Protect the Illinois Constitution, a big labor/big business coalition, to defeat this opportunity for change. Barack’s main man is helping the most powerful special interests of his state’s dysfunctional status quo in a multi-million dollar campaign to prevent the chance for change on this November’s statewide ballot.
Axelrod is also, of course, a longtime strategist for Chicago Mayor-for-Life Richard Daley. No one has ever mistaken Daley as a “change-agent.”
Last week, Chicago Sun-Times columnist Carol Marin called state government “All Democrats, all dysfunctional, all the time.” Her column shared part of a letter to Obama, wherein United Power for Action and Justice wrote: “While your campaign manager is heading a presidential effort whose slogan is ‘Change you can believe in,’ his firm is running a local campaign whose slogan should read, ‘Change we must fear and undermine.’”
Not surprisingly, even many politicians who admit Springfield is “broken” still oppose the convention. “Most of the problems in Springfield are not constitutional,” contends former Comptroller Dawn Clark Netsch. “It’s political. It’s ego. It’s power. It’s how much they all hate the governor and one another. They’re all a bunch of spoiled brats.”
But solutions — such as recall and term limits — are, indeed, necessarily constitutional in nature.
In a new book, Illinois Deserves Better, John Bambenek and Bruno Behrend argue that, “A great many problems, to be sure, would be solved by simply having better governors, legislators and local officials. However, a constitution is designed to limit the amount of damage a bad office-holder can do.”
Most Americans don’t live in Illinois and, therefore, have better things to do than fret about whether Illinois holds a constitutional convention to reform their government. But Barack Obama will walk into the voting booth this November and cast a ballot either for or against such a convention, and, thereby, for or against any real chance for reform. How will he vote?
It’s a pretty central question: Is Barack Obama really for change?