Ill. Voters May Get Chance To Recall Governors

The last two Illinois governors were able to remain in office long after they were tainted by federal corruption investigations, but the state's voters may soon get chance to throw governors out of office much more easily. A recall amendment will be on the Illinois ballot, but critics say recall is not the real political reform the state needs.

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The last two Illinois governors were brought down by scandal. Now, the current governor, Pat Quinn, wants to give the state's voters the opportunity to throw him out of office.

NPR's David Schaper explains.

DAVID SCHAPER: With one of his immediate predecessors behind bars and the other awaiting trial, Illinois Governor Pat Quinn puts one reform measure above all others: recall.

Governor PAT QUINN (Democrat, Illinois): Well, I think recall is the ultimate ethics measure for the people of Illinois. We've had two bad governors in a row: George Ryan and Rod Blagojevich. And a lot of voters were helpless to do anything about it.

SCHAPER: Quinn says waiting four years for the next election to vote a governor out of office takes too long. As for the impeachment process, even though it ushered this former lieutenant governor into the state's top job, Quinn says it's too complicated and recall is preferable.

Gov. QUINN: The recall process belongs to the people. It's not a political thing. It's not a legal thing. It's voters deciding upon reflection to vote no confidence in the incumbent.

SCHAPER: So, after months of resisting, Illinois lawmakers finally heeded Quinn's call to put a recall amendment to the state's constitution on the Illinois ballot next year. It would apply only to the governor's office. And many residents here seem to like the idea.

Ms. CAITLIN MUSIK(ph): I'm assuming it's because of Blagojevich, right?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MUSIK: Then, yeah, I think it's a good idea to put the control back in the voters' hands.

SCHAPER: Student Caitlin Musik says it's her American right to throw out a governor who's not doing the job, and Brandon Bailey(ph) of Chicago agrees.

Mr. BRANDON BAILEY: I think that's a great idea. Why not? If he's performed poorly, why shouldn't we be able to withdraw him?

Ms. JANET DAVIDSON(ph): You know what? I have to tell you, this is such a corrupt place, Illinois and Chicago, I don't know what that would do.

SCHAPER: Janet Davidson of Chicago, who's unemployed, sums up the cynicism of many voters here.

Ms. DAVIDSON: I think the whole system intrinsically here is corrupt. And so one goes and another one comes in, it's politics in Chicago.

SCHAPER: Many political reformers agree and say recall is like using a topical ointment to salve a deep, political cancer. Eighteen other states allow for elections to recall a governor, but it's rarely used. Before Gray Davis was recalled in California in 2003, the last successful recall of a sitting governor was in North Dakota in 1921. And Illinois' recall measure sets an especially high threshold for a recall election. Thirty state legislators, 15 from each party, would have to sign affidavits to start the process. Then proponents would need to get hundreds of thousands of voters to sign petitions before a special recall election could be set.

Cindy Canary is executive director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform.

Ms. CINDY CANARY (Executive Director, Illinois Campaign for Political Reform): I think it's highly unlikely that we would ever see this particular measure, you know, put into place and it is quite limited. Maybe it'll make us feel a little bit better, but I think we really have more fundamental work to do in Illinois.

SCHAPER: Canary had spent more than a decade pushing for comprehensive campaign finance reform in Illinois and this fall has finally had some success. Lawmakers approved the state's first ever limits on the amount individuals, businesses and special interest groups can contribute to political candidates.

There are new disclosure requirements for campaign contributions, too. But the new regulations don't go into effect until after next year's elections. And among the other loopholes, there are no limits on contributions from political parties.

David Yepsen is director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University.

Mr. DAVID YEPSEN (Director, Paul Simon Public Policy Institute, Southern Illinois University): Money and politics is like water on a flat roof - it will find a way through. And so, if you set up an elaborate system of limits, all you're going to do is create an elaborate system that politicians will use to get around it.

SCHAPER: But other reform advocates say to have any limits on campaign contributions in Illinois is a huge step forward. And when coupled with improvements to state procurement and open government laws among other measures, many say Illinois' political ethics laws are stronger now than they were when FBI agents knocked on Rod Blagojevich's door nearly a year ago.

David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago.

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