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Political rhetoric easy; answers are not

Published: Saturday, May 17, 2014 1:15 a.m. CST

Must have been the early ’70s when merit systems began to intrude on politics in state and local government.

This editor was a young reporter when Paul Cooley, a second-term Democratic mayor of Muncie, Indiana, called the city council together to talk about the implications of merit hiring.

In trying to allay the fears of the local politicians who had never met a relative they couldn’t hire, the mayor put an old spin on a new system for government employment.

“I can think of nothing more meritorious,” he said, “than being a good Democrat.”

He was kidding – sort of.

WE HAVE HEARD A lot in recent days about the uncovering of emails and other documents showing that dozens of state government jobs in Illinois have been filled with people who were politically involved or contributed campaign money to the party of Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn.

Aside from Illinois, that kind of thing doesn’t go on anywhere else in the U.S. – except for maybe the 49 other states.

The campaign of Republican gubernatorial candidate Bruce Rauner is sending out several emails each day to report on the reporting by newspapers, TV stations and others that seems to suggest that government jobs don’t always go to the best, most qualified candidates for those positions.

Somehow, some way, people who contribute campaign funds have been found to have influence in Illinois government.

If investigators look close enough, they might find that such money also influences lawmaking in the Capitol. (We mean Springfield, because such a thing would never happen in Washington.)

People involved in Illinois politics are all abuzz about this low-grade scandal, which might have something to do with the Nov. 4 election. Just a hunch.

Meanwhile, the public’s reaction – a deafening yawn – might be written off as a bad case of corruption fatigue.

We need an antidote.

FORMER REPUBLICAN Gov. George Ryan is presumably enjoying retirement since being released from prison 10 months ago.

His successor, former Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich, can be assumed to be having less fun as a current resident at a federal penitentiary in Colorado.

Patronage and corruption are not unique to any political party or to any state.

Illinois just seems to be better at it than most.

How this plays out during the campaign for governor – already in overdrive still 24 weeks and 3 days away from the election – will say something about how voters respond to decades of corruption that have left many of them numb with apathy.

Quinn is damaged political goods from having presided during the most troubling times of the state’s post-gangster era. But Illinois is a strong blue state with a deep Democratic base.

Still, Illinois voters have elected a lot of Republican governors. Rauner can be the next one if he convinces enough independents that he really can break the state’s culture of cronyism and corruption.

We’ll see.

BOLDEST POLITICAL strategy of the season:

Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan figures legislators will extend the temporary increase in the state income tax when they see the revenue that is needed to fund his idea of a budget.

If that tax increase were allowed to expire in 2015, he figures, the required funding cuts would be so drastic that his Democratic super-majority will willingly risk defeat in November to stop the 5 percent income tax from falling to 3.25 percent come Jan. 1.

Some Democrats already are getting weak knees just thinking about the political fallout of drastic funding cuts in their communities.

So nobody should be surprised if Madigan finds the 60 votes he needs in his 71-member caucus.

Likewise, no one should be surprised by the severe pain that schools and local governments and state services will feel if that revenue is cut off. If you think the late payments and funding shortfalls have been bad with that 5 percent tax in place, imagine that revenue disappearing.

No easy answers here.

DUMBEST POLL OF the campaign – so far:

Somebody actually paid for a poll to tell us that most Illinois voters would be “less likely” to vote for a candidate who was endorsed by Speaker Madigan.

First, practically nobody votes for a candidate based on the endorsements he receives.

Proper context should explain the role of endorsements in a voter’s decision-making process. You cannot look at an endorsement in a vacuum, as the poll question did.

That is to say, lots of factors go into most votes. Endorsements have little to nothing to do with how people vote.

Second, what candidate in his right mind would invite Madigan’s endorsement?

Madigan understands that, which is why he will avoid tainting candidates with his public support.

That’s why this poll, among all dumb polls, was particularly worthless.

Won’t be the last one.

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