Open Letter to New Jersey, From the State That Really Knows Corruption
Dearest Citizens of New Jersey,
I know how you feel.
It was Dec. 9, 2008. My first semester of college was over, and my first Chicago winter had begun. I was going home for Christmas, and so early that morning I caught a cab for O'Hare.
The radio was on. Weather report, national news, sports: it's early and I'm not really listening.
Then the anchor breaks in with a special report. Rod Blagojevich, governor of Illinois, has been arrested at his home. He's been charged with conspiracy to commit wire fraud and felony solicitation of bribes. Federal marshals are on the scene. So is the FBI. My cab driver breaks his erstwhile silence: "What the actual fuck?"
Blago makes a sad puppy face in his mugshot because he knows what he did was wrong.
For the rest of my college career, I would follow along with the rest of Illinois as our former governor was impeached, tried, tried a second time, and ultimately convicted of 17 felonies.
I know how you feel.
So it turns out Chris Christie is a pernicious bully whose oft-mocked girth is exceeded only by his gluttony for petty vengeance. It’s not bad enough that he shut mayors out of important planning meetings as a form of punishment, or that he backed up a vital commuter bridge out of spite, possibly killing a 91-year-old grandmother in the process. No: now he's the subject of a federal corruption probe for misusing emergency relief funds.
But take solace, my friends, because I'm here to tell you that it's going to be OK. Your problems aren't as bad as they seem — and I would know. You think Bridgegate is bad? The people of Illinois lived through Blagojevich, and that is just the tip of the iceberg. We have a rich, illustrious history of corruption dating back more than a century.
For example, in the 1850s, Governor Joel Aldrich Matteson was caught red handed with $200,000 of stolen cash and managed to get off by claiming he "found it in a shoebox" and paying it back. It worked out so well for Matteson, that when former Illinois Secretary of State Paul Powell needed a couple extra hundred thousand dollars in the 1960s, he just kept checks intended to pay license plate registration fees (inexplicably made out to his name) in a whole bunch of shoeboxes. He didn't even get caught: the checks weren't discovered until his death in 1970.
What's a little self-serving use of federal relief funds compared to that? Hell, even if Christie is implicated in that scandal, it's not like he's going to jail for it. He might even make out as well as 1920s Illinois Governor Lennington Small, who despite embezzling over $1 million from the state and being charged with a few felonies, went on to serve seven more years in the governor's mansion. All he had to do was give four of the jurors state jobs, and I'm sure Chris Christie has some vacancies laying around somewhere.
I want YOU to be my next deputy chief of staff!
These days, Illinois is doing just fine.
And hey, even jail time isn't that bad for a former governor. Otto Kerner, the Land of Lincoln's governor from in the early 1960s, only served three years for a shithouse mobster's dream sweep of convictions on bribery, conspiracy, mail fraud, perjury and income tax evasion. His near successor Governor Dan Walker was even luckier: He served 17 and a half months for over $1 million in fraudulent loans used to service his personal yacht.
At least Chris Christie remains resolutely on land during high tides. And even if he does fall, consider your broader track record. Former Governor Jon Corzine escaped office scandal-free (though his post-governorship was a different story), and the next guy or woman probably won't be so bad. Over here in the Midwest, we had Blagojevich right on the heels of his predecessor George Ryan, who went down on 18 counts of corruption, including some deliciously old-school racketeering. At this point, we'd be shocked if we never see current governor Pat Quinn sporting an orange jumpsuit — and yet we still lead the nation in soybean production. Even the worst scandals can't destroy a great people; that's my point.
Illinois: The Land of Legumes
Oh, and by the way, that's just our governors. I won't even mention the Chicago City Council, or the Daleys, junior and senior, who just happened to be tied for most years served as mayor. You don't need them in order to know that, in Illinois, you're more likely to go to jail for being governor than you are for literally murdering somebody.
Because four of our last eight governors have gone to prison.
But we still (almost) got the Olympics!
Look, it suffices to say, New Jersey, we've had it worse than you. And you know what? The world didn't end. Illinois currently leads the nation in Cyber Aces competitors. We've got those soybeans. We're number one in wind turbine installation, and nobody can beat our wrongful conviction rate (oh, wait…).
We even produced a couple of U.S. presidents. Maybe you've heard of them? (Hint: One is in office now, and the other one freed the slaves.)
So buck up, buckle down, and take heed. The negative focus will pass soon enough. After all, you're New Jersey. You've got the lowest divorce rate in the land, the highest graduation rate for African Americans, and technical ownership of Liberty Island which has the Statue of Liberty. You'll bounce back, and before you know it, Cory Booker will be your governor. If Illinois has survived its own history, so can you.
And remember: Corruption isn't the worst thing that can happen to a state. Just look at Mississippi — they haven't had a governor arrested since Charles Clark surrendered to invading Union forces, and they still can't get off the top bracket of almost every "worst in the nation" list. Better to have competent corruption than backwards neo-Confederate sociopaths running your state — that's what I always say.
So keep your chin up, New Jersey. It gets better.
Yours in perpetual scandal,