July 21, 2021

Tina Turner sang "You're simply the best. Better than all the rest. Better than anyone. Anyone I've ever met ... You're simply the best."

One thing is for sure, she wasn't singing about Illinois' 43 governors, of which about two-thirds were simply not the best, mediocre like most of the rest, and nearly a quarter were outright rapscallions, which is defined as a rascal, a rogue or a reprobate - someone of dubious ethics and/or negligible integrity. Among them were also liars, embezzlers, frauds, thieves and cheats.

Actually, Illinois has had only 41 governors, with Richard Oglesby (R) elected to 3 non-consecutive terms, and has had only 35 elected governors, since six lieutenant governors were elevated but didn't retain their job. Of those 35 a total of seven have been indicted and four have been convicted and imprisoned.

That's a dismal 20 percent who have been hauled off into some court and charged with wrongdoing. And let's not forget Orville Hodge (R), state auditor in the 1950s, who embezzled $1,576,344 in state funds. Way to go, Illinois. Not even Louisiana has a worse track record.
Let's look at some of the worst.

JOEL MATTESON (D): He has a town named after him. And he was the biggest crook of all, embezzling an astounding $388,000 during his 1853-56 term. That's like $30 million in 2020 dollars. He was indicted by a Sangamon County grand jury, but then "unindicted" when he agreed to pay it back. He went on to become a railroad president. He had great job training for that.

GEORGE RYAN (R): Gotta have some money. Campaigns are costly, and incumbents get campaign donations from those who seek favors. Ryan's policy as Secretary of State (1991-98) was that each of the 2,000-plus employees constantly sell fund-raising tickets. And the lowly-paid employees embraced the obvious alternative: They took bribes in order to pay Ryan and keep their job.

After a catastrophic 1990s accident involving a driver who paid a bribe for a license, the feds' investigation resulted in a 22-count indictment of Ryan in 2003, after he retired.

ROD BLAGOJEVICH (D): In his 2010 federal trial for "public corruption," (the one where he allegedly attempted to sell a Senate seat cuz it was "golden") Blagojevich was hit with 24 counts of conspiracy, attempted bribery and mail fraud.

He was convicted on one count (mail fraud), the jury was hung on the other 23, and a mistrial declared. The smart move would have been to make a plea deal on the mail fraud, and get a conviction and a year's probation, but lose his law license. He chose otherwise. A second trial resulted, Blagojevich was hit with 20 counts and the jury found him guilty on 17, and he got 14 years. Trump commuted his sentence in 2020.

LEN SMALL (R): The 1870 Illinois Constitution limited state treasurers to one 2-year non-consecutive term. The reason was to limit their thievery. The treasurer would collect tax revenues and put them in the bank of his choice. The lucky bank(s) would pay interest on the hefty deposit and eventually forward the money to the state. Can one not see the possibilities here?

Small was governor 1921-28, but was elected treasurer in 1904 and 1916. In the latter term he used a defunct bank in Kankakee for deposits, had it loan out the transient money at 6 percent to meat-packers, pocketed 3 percent, and remitted the rest to the state.

In 1921 he was indicted for money laundering and embezzlement. He was a federal prosecutor, county judge and the perfect puppet for Boss Daley to install as governor in 1960. He won by 524,252 votes and was re-elected by 170,299 in 1964. He was indicted in 1973 on 17 counts of mail fraud, conspiracy and perjury, linked to a scheme by the owner of the Arlington Park racetrack to get preferential dates. He got underpriced stock options, and later turned a nice profit.

DAN WALKER (D): He chaired a commission that submitted to the fed a report that concluded that a "police riot" resulted in the streets of Chicago during the 1968 Democratic convention. Walker later founded an oil-change business (now Jiffy Lube), his own multi-office law firm ("The Advocates") and a Savings & Loan. He also dumped his wife, bought a yacht, and lived the high life.

Excepting the seven rapscallions, that leaves just 28 others, most mediocre. Such governors can be competent governors. Fixing things done wrong does not necessarily mean not accomplishing things. That begs the age-old argument as to whether the times make the leader, or whether the leader makes the times.

State historians, usually those with a liberal bias, rank governors on the basis of "progressive" accomplishments, which invariably mean expanding the scope of government, providing more services, spending more and levying taxes. And to be sure, many societal problems require intervention, not passivity.

But, conversely, governors (see chart) can also be ranked on two other criterion: Crisis management and moral turpitude. A CRISIS can be financial, international (war) or public health.

Hindsight is wonderful - and also distorted. What was once seen as catastrophic becomes inconsequential, and what was once seen as ordinary becomes monumental.

JIM THOMPSON (R): The former federal prosecutor was elected in 1976 by 1,390,137 votes, and his 64.7 percent the largest in state history. He was re-elected in 1978 by 596,550 votes, in 1982 by 5,074, and in 1986 by 399,223. Governance has a price. Thompson was not an ideologue with an agenda. He was not a Reagan Republican.

He collaborated with legislative Democrats, got budgets passed, got the State of Illinois (now Thompson) Center and White Sox Park built. He was also a typical political prevaricator, promising that he wouldn't raise taxes in his 1982 and 1986 campaigns, but raising income, gas and liquor taxes in 1983 and 1987. Overall, Thompson was an above-average governor, and the only 4-termer.

DICK OGILVIE (R): Historians ogle over Ogilvie, tabbing him "courageous." He discovered in 1972 that voters don't appreciate courage if it raises their taxes. A 1932 court decision held that Illinois' 1870 Constitution prohibited a personal or corporate income tax. The state's primary revenue was from sales taxes, of which there was a perpetual shortfall. Ogilvie had a Republican legislature, but had to collaborate in 1969 with Democrats to enact an income tax - 4 percent on corporations and 2.5 on individuals. Democrats won the legislature in 1970.

Ogilvie was no "reformer " His ambition was to run for president in 1976. He anticipated his 1972 foe would be Lt. Gov. Paul Simon (D), who supported the income tax. But Dan Walker upset Simon in the primary and the Ogilvie Machine could not overcome his "outsider" and anti-tax appeal. Ogilvie lost by 77,494 votes while Nixon and Percy won the state by over 1,000,000. As they say, no "good deed" goes unpunished.

FRANK LOWDEN (R): He might have been president during his term (1917-20) he consolidated 125 patronage-laden state agencies into 12 departments, created a bureau of the budget and dealt with the 1918-19 influenza pandemic. Ex-president Teddy Roosevelt was the presumptive 1920 Republican nominee for president, but died in 1919. The frontrunners were Lowden and General Leonard Wood. It was liberal-versus-conservative. Deadlocked, Republicans chose "dark horse" Warren Harding instead.

JOHN PETER ALTGELD (D): Historians gush about Altgeld as the BEST governor. He was courageous and politically dense. He was a goo-goo, slang for a "good government" type, and focused on social justice issues like workplace reforms, higher education and women's rights.

RICHARD YATES (R): He was not a veteran or abolitionist, and he took office in 1860 as the Civil War beckoned. Lincoln tasked him to raise 53,000 troops, and he sent 50,000 into battle, including 157 regiments and 13 100-day volunteer regiments. He gets credit for making Ulysses Grant a colonel of the 21st Illinois Regiment, starting his rise to general and for being a competent War Governor.

Now, as for the current governor who just announced his bid for reelection, the efficacy of incumbent J.B. Pritzker's (D) handling of the COVID-19 pandemic will be judged by history and judged by state voters in 2022.

Were the shutdowns and closures necessary? Were they overlong? And did they cause lasting financial damage and kill too many businesses for no reason? Time will tell. But state tax revenues are surging, consumers are spending and no state tax hikes are looming. The Republican hopefuls are Gary Rabine, Darren Bailey and Paul Schimpf.

Editor's note: Stewart's research for this column is based on a book on state governors by Robert P. Howard.