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State Politics Thu Apr 09 2015

Aaron Schock and Endless, Evolving Corruption

Aaron Schock Men's HealthAaron Schock's sudden yet not-so-sudden fall from grace has provided a lot of fodder for columnists and editorial boards -- and for good reason. There's the "Downton Abbey" office. There's the rippling abs cover of Men's Health. There's the endless discussion about his sexual orientation. And then there's the infamous Stephen Colbert interview. The congressman has sought, and received, a whole lot of attention over time. And now he's received more, but not in the way he would have preferred.

It's tempting to write 10 pages about Schock's background, as his early political history is almost as fascinating as everything swirling around his recent surprise announcement that he would be resigning his seat as Illinois' 18th District Congressman at the end of March. But many others have had their say on Schock. For a nice primer on the 33-year-old's meteoric rise, the Peoria Journal-Star offers a very nice time line. For in-depth reporting on the immediate scandal that appears to have brought Schock down, Politico is your bet, as they broke possibly the most damning evidence of financial impropriety, and have followed up with other insightful pieces about what's going on in Washington.

The short version is that over about four and a half years, Schock allegedly submitted mileage reimbursement reports, some to his campaign and some to the government, for about 170,000 total miles; but when he sold his Chevy Tahoe in July 2014, the odometer only showed 80,000 miles driven. A very rough estimate is that these alleged false reimbursements were worth about $45,000. Filing false mileage reimbursement reports sounds mundane, but this is just the latest issue to arise, and there are probably more to come.

corrupt illinoisWhile the details seem unique, the broad strokes of the story were very predictable. It is simply a new twist on what Thomas Gradel and Dick Simpson have written about in Corrupt Illinois, essentially a compendium of Prairie State corruption dating back to the first half of the 1800s, but with a particular focus on Chicago, especially over the last 50 years.

There is much to laud about what Gradel and Simpson have compiled. At the same time, though, they persistently undermine one of their nominal reasons for writing the book. The thesis of the book might be oversimplified as: Illinois is amazingly corrupt, and people are complacent about it, but it doesn't need to be this way, and if people just understood all of the patterns and details, then solutions could be implemented. The problem is that through persistent repetition (to the point where it feels like the chapters were written independently of one another) and a certain prevailing indignant stridency, they provide less in the way of solutions than they do in reinforcing the old chestnut that nobody can really do anything about corruption. Perhaps worse, by focusing so much on chronicling things which are clearly illegal or which seem likely to be illegal, they fail to report on the prevailing "above the board" corruption that largely defines how Illinois works today. The Schock saga, breaking only weeks after the book's publication, makes Gradel and Simpson look prescient, but also shines a light on the limitations of their approach.

Schock emerged politically by winning a write-in election for Peoria School Board when he was only 19. Four years later, he won his General Assembly seat in an election where he really shouldn't have had a chance. The four-term incumbent Ricca Slone went negative, and Schock was extremely impressive in his conduct of the election. He was 23, but he showed a true political maturity. This is an important thing to understand, because so many commentators will be quick to disparage Schock for making immature decisions. The "Downton Abbey" office, the Men's Health cover -- these weren't piques of immaturity. They were acts of hubris.

Schock barely won those first two elections. But when the opportunity came to run for Congress in 2008, he steamrolled to victory. It is easy to forget that Illinois is, over the long haul, a traditionally Republican state (Land of Lincoln, Birthplace of Reagan, etc.) The Republicans in Illinois were in very bad shape as of 2008. Schock was the brightest light they had going, and so the primary field was largely cleared out for him, and the general election was essentially a formality since the district had been "sweetheart gerrymandered" to be solidly Republican. In turn, when the districts were redrawn in 2011, the district was made even more Republican. Look closely at the urban population centers in the 18th District today. If you know the geography of Peoria, Bloomington and Springfield, you can see that every attempt was made to draw every possible African-American voter outside of the 18th District.

Remember, though, who controlled redistricting: Michael Madigan and the Democrats. Schock was set for as long as he wanted to remain in Congress, and the Democrats were happy to keep him there. This is a perpetually poorly understood aspect of the dynamics in Illinois: the leaders of the two major parties have a surprising propensity to take care of one another, so long as they don't try to overstep their bounds.

This is why, when the Tribune editorializes that "his forgiving constituents looked past the lack of gravitas and continued to vote for him," the appropriate reaction is: Wow, the Tribune is really full of shit.

Schock has never been an ideologue. He might have copped a particular agenda from time to time (such as the pro-life stance that was central to the 2004 General Assembly campaign) but at his core he is simply exceptional at selling himself. Both the Republican and Democratic leadership fueled that, to the point of practically handing him a golden ticket to Congress. The reality is that Schock did not suddenly become corrupt on some particular day when he first did something illegal. The process of Schock's evolving corruption intimately involved the way in which he was handled by the powers around him.

Gradel and Simpson very much understand the idea of being handled in a rotten political culture. But something still feels missing, and it seems to come back to the very definition of corruption.

The authors assert that "public or political corruption occurs whenever public officials use their insider information or their official position for public gain." The sentence wasn't well edited -- surely it should read "personal gain" -- but beyond that, "corruption" has been defined in a manner which is either so broad as to be almost meaningless, or must implicitly be understood to mean that such gain is achieved through technically illegal means. That discrepancy never really gets cleared up. This passage is particularly telling:

Even when not convicted of corruption, smart aldermen like Ed Burke are able to parlay their clout into legal fees that make them millionaires. They practice what the New York City party boss George Washington Plunkitt called 'honest graft'. And as long as aldermen have the political clout to control zoning, licenses, permits, property-tax reductions, city contracts, and patronage jobs, corruption will continue to send alderman to prison.

Are the authors saying that Ed Burke is corrupt, just smarter about it? Or are they saying Ed Burke stops short of being truly corrupt, because he merely practices "honest graft"?

Is the real problem that Aaron Schock crossed some sort of legal line at some point, or that even when he didn't cross, he was still riding the line, because he had been set up with a very secure seat and innumerable "honest" perks? Is Schock overstepping the limits of his fiefdom really worse than Michael Madigan getting the law changed so that nobody else can give unlimited amounts of money to legislative candidates, but he still can?

Gradel and Simpson, in their concluding chapter, do talk about ways to fight corruption, but most of their thinking is very limited. They do rightly talk about public financing of elections, and they do mention nonpartisan, impartial redistricting, but how are citizens supposed to achieve such things given who's in power in Springfield?

At a base level, Gradel and Simpson want us to believe that "reform" can be the solution. But that's just another hollow word at this point. Pat Quinn, supposedly a "reformer," signed a campaign finance law which has actually appeared to have made things worse, if the explosion in money in the recent aldermanic elections are any indication. Most "reforms" are still designed to protect most incumbents, so long as they're willing to limit themselves to "honest graft."

If you've been built up as a rock star and thrust into an environment where all of the ethical boundaries are incredibly fuzzy and the rules that are and aren't in place are highly arbitrary, can it really be surprising when you fail to toe the line?

Busting corruption in Illinois -- and beyond -- cannot simply be about focusing on the situations where the lines get crossed, and then trying to piece backwards from there. It requires diving into the guts of the "honest graft" -- the intricate systems by which politicians like Madigan have become so entrenched -- and figuring out how to attack those systems at their roots. It will require the emergence of new political entities who are willing to take the fight in terms other than the ones laid out by the people setting the rules.

Meanwhile, what's about to play out in the 18th District demonstrates the overall inspidness of the dominant paradigm. The reason Aaron Schock was able to move into a congressional seat is because the incumbent, Ray LaHood, was ostensibly retiring (though really, he was setting himself up to become Obama's Secretary of Transportation.) Now that Schock has stepped aside, who's the frontrunner to replace him? State Senator Darin LaHood, son of Ray. The game is rigged, and a lot of people not only roll with it, but justify it. Darin LaHood will be somebody that somebody sent. Didn't his dad bring a lot of money back to Peoria? He'll probably be able to do the same. Et cetera, et cetera.

If nothing else, at least the Schock saga gives us a more colorful view of the ebb and flow of the corrupt system in play in Illinois. Gradel and Simpson do an excellent job detailing other such sagas -- and Schock alone gives them occasion to roll out a fast second edition -- but at some point, we have to collectively move beyond the approach that if people are only presented with all of the information, they'll magically come around.

The work is not being done in the streets -- not in Chicago, and not in Peoria -- to truly turn things around. Reform can occasionally chip away at some of the excesses, but it will take more than that to get Illinois on the right track. It will take dozens of more candidates running for many of these offices, and the emergence of organizations to help those candidates overcome financial and organizational deficits. Most significantly, it will take the recognition on the part of those organizations that they have to stop working in isolation, and that they will never be successful trying to operate from the inside of the Republican or Democratic Parties. The recent aldermanic elections suggest that this awakening may be under way in Chicago, but a great deal more work will need to be done.

 
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