Is Illinois the Most Corrupt State?

In the wake of New York Gov. David Paterson's latest scandal, The Economist said "Dysfunctional Albany…is frequently cited as the nation's worst state government—a title for which there is intense competition." We at NEWSWEEK are fans of competition, so seven of our staffers made the case for states they're intimately familiar with. Here national-affairs columnist Jonathan Alter argues for his home state of Illinois.

I'm not prepared to say that Illinois takes the gold in every corruption category. For instance, the state I live in now—New Jersey—has more-corrupt county government, in part because it has so many counties.

But Illinois has a special place in the Hall of Shame going back to the 19th century. It was always a fast-buck kind of state. A strong tradition of machine politics took hold in the early 20th century and continues—in much-reduced circumstances—to this day.

Illinois has had four indicted governors in my lifetime—Otto Kerner (who went to jail for taking payoffs in exchange for fixing horse-racing dates), Dan Walker (who served time for fraud conducted in private business after he left office), George Ryan (currently in the big house for abetting a scheme to sell trucking licenses), and Rod Blagojevich (who is awaiting trial for allegedly trying to sell Obama's Senate seat). This is going to be hard for any rival states to top.

But I still agree with something Barack Obama said when Blago had to resign about a year ago. Politicians come in two flavors: those who go into politics to make money and those who genuinely want to serve the public. There are plenty in both categories in Illinois—and everywhere else. So let's enjoy the rogue-off but check the cynicism.

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