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Commentary: To earn political trust: Act, don't talk

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 4, 2010 - Soon after taking the reins as Illinois' 40th chief executive, Rod Blagojevich outed and ousted dozens who had been embedded in state jobs through the shenanigans of the 39th.

Blagojevich named and nailed his targets as he condemned George Ryan's administration for flouting personnel rules in a vain attempt to shield loyalists from the incoming governor's firing squad.

"This is the type of backroom, underhanded deal that has marked state government in recent years. It's a business as usual approach that has been winked at and allowed to go unchecked but will not be allowed in my administration," Blagojevich declared.

His high horse became a bucking bronco long ago. But Blagojevich's sanctimonious pronouncements deserve revisiting - especially by Illinois' 41st governor, the Republican who seeks to become the 42nd and others who wield or covet power in these most fragile of times for our state.

Spare us self-righteousness.

Let performance - not platitudes - speak to integrity.

Avoid the cheap rhetoric that takes a priceless toll in public confidence when heightened expectations go unmet.

Don't utter words and promises without anticipating accountability.

Earn trust; don't erode it.

For most of his adult life, Pat Quinn had been on offense, challenging the motives of the in-crowd. Among other things, he seized on citizen outrage over sneaky, hefty legislative pay raises to launch and land a 1980 initiative to downsize the Illinois House. But he has played primarily defense since leaving his quiet roost in the lieutenant governor's office to replace the evicted Blagojevich.

Gov. Quinn now struggles to explain his politically expedient - "He's always been a person who is honest" - character reference for an already-tainted Blagojevich while they sought re-election in 2006. He struggles to justify his decision to woo endorsement by Cook County Democratic committeemen in his primary contest against Dan Hynes after decades of denouncing party slating. He bristles at criticism over accepting a $75,000 campaign contribution from the Teamsters shortly before taking pro-union action on major McCormick Place legislation.

"I always do the right thing," Quinn repeatedly responds.

Such arrogance of incorruptibility abets lapses. Rationalization comes too easily to those who are constantly courted. Even the most well-intentioned public officials must acknowledge the threat of ethical corrosion by regularly consulting their consciences and hiring staff members willing to confront them. Quinn must recognize this. So must State Sen. Bill Brady, his Republican re-election rival.

"The beginning of disgraced Gov. Rod Blagojevich's trial is a stark reminder to voters that too many politicians have long placed their own interests before the people's interests. Enough is enough," Brady bugles.

But what about his Blagojevich-like vow not to increase taxes while he offers mostly placebos to treat a rapidly metastasizing fiscal cancer? Or his Senate votes backing legislation friendly to a major project planned by his development business?

Credibility matters.

Republican Tom Cross, who helped tighten ethics laws, advocates much more change in commentaries excoriating Democratic legislative chieftains Mike Madigan and John Cullerton for crafting and enacting measures designed to appease an outraged citizenry while preserving their power bases. But would the House minority leader's hunger for reform abate if his party took control? After all, he touted legislation in March 2008 to outlaw autodialed, recorded phone messages; then he underwrote a trash-talking, robo-call initiative to influence the outcome of a Democratic legislative primary not even two years later.

Let's presume none of these players has engaged in activity even remotely resembling the racketeering alleged against Rod Blagojevich. But his travail in a federal courtroom offers a gripping lesson for them, for others in the political arena, for all of us.

Mike Lawrence, former director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University, writes a twice-monthly column.

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