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Vintage Chicago Tribune: Illinois governors — mostly the corrupt ones

Chicago Tribune logo Chicago Tribune 11/10/2022 Kori Rumore, Marianne Mather, Chicago Tribune
Media surround Gov. Rod Blagojevich's Ravenswood Manor home in Chicago on Dec. 10, 2008, the day after his arrest on corruption charges. © Michael Tercha/Chicago Tribune/TNS Media surround Gov. Rod Blagojevich's Ravenswood Manor home in Chicago on Dec. 10, 2008, the day after his arrest on corruption charges.

After the polls closed Tuesday, it took just one minute before the race for Illinois governor was called, Chicago.

Gov. Rod Blagojevich leaves the James R. Thompson Center on Dec. 11, 2008, with his security detail. © Tom Van Dyke/Chicago Tribune/TNS Gov. Rod Blagojevich leaves the James R. Thompson Center on Dec. 11, 2008, with his security detail.

And just like that, J.B. Pritzker will serve a second term. In a state that has a history of corrupt politicians — including the seven I highlight below — that’s the type of uneventful transition I appreciate.

Including Pritzker, there have been 43 men who have served in our state’s top role. And as the defining book about them by Robert P. Howard states in its title, “The Illinois Governors: Mostly Good and Competent.”

Just because they were mostly good and competent, however, doesn’t mean our former governors weren’t quirky.

Gov. Rod Blagojevich leaves his home in the Ravenswood Manor neighborhood under the watchful eye of the media Dec. 11, 2008, two days after being arrested on corruption charges. © Michael Tercha/Chicago Tribune/TNS Gov. Rod Blagojevich leaves his home in the Ravenswood Manor neighborhood under the watchful eye of the media Dec. 11, 2008, two days after being arrested on corruption charges.

The first Gov. Richard Yates (yes, there were two of them) earned the nickname “Drunken Dick.” At his inauguration in 1861, the intoxicated pol kept President-elect Abraham Lincoln and other dignitaries waiting for half an hour, then stumbled down the aisle and into a chair. The House clerk read his speech for him.

John Stelle, who served as governor for three months after the death of Henry Horner in 1940, appointed a new state purchasing agent, George Edward Day, who bought loads of paint from a Springfield merchant he knew well — himself. The insider dealing had a lasting public benefit, however — Illinois used Day’s paint to become only the second state to put yellow lines in the middle of its roads.

Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, joined by Judge Abner Mikva, calls on the Illinois Supreme Court to temporarily remove Gov. Rod Blagojevich from office and appoint Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn as acting governor, as she meets with reporters Dec. 12, 2008, at the James R. Thompson Center on Dec. 12, 2008. © Zbigniew Bzdak/Chicago Tribune/TNS Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, joined by Judge Abner Mikva, calls on the Illinois Supreme Court to temporarily remove Gov. Rod Blagojevich from office and appoint Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn as acting governor, as she meets with reporters Dec. 12, 2008, at the James R. Thompson Center on Dec. 12, 2008.

And, if you’re into local trivia then remember this — the first name of Illinois’ first governor was Shadrach. The third governor’s first name was Ninian.

Speaker Michael Madigan listens to the debate about a resolution, which he co-sponsored, as lawmakers begin the process of impeaching Gov. Rod Blagojevich on Dec. 15, 2008. © Abel Uribe/Chicago Tribune/TNS Speaker Michael Madigan listens to the debate about a resolution, which he co-sponsored, as lawmakers begin the process of impeaching Gov. Rod Blagojevich on Dec. 15, 2008.

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— Kori Rumore, visual reporter

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Joel Aldrich Matteson (1853-1857)

Matteson was the 10th governor of Illinois and also the first chief executive of the state to reside in the Illinois Governor’s Mansion in Springfield, which was completed in 1855.

Gov. Rod Blagojevich refuses to talk to reporters Dec. 16, 2008, as he leaves his house on the Northwest Side. He was carrying a briefcase and a gym bag. Blagojevich has ignored pressure to step down since he was charged in a federal criminal complaint with corruption. Instead, he has showed up to work at his downtown office and continued to conduct state business, including signing about a dozen bills. © Michael Tercha/Chicago Tribune/TNS Gov. Rod Blagojevich refuses to talk to reporters Dec. 16, 2008, as he leaves his house on the Northwest Side. He was carrying a briefcase and a gym bag. Blagojevich has ignored pressure to step down since he was charged in a federal criminal complaint with corruption. Instead, he has showed up to work at his downtown office and continued to conduct state business, including signing about a dozen bills.

The namesake of the south suburb was accused of defrauding the state of $388,528 after serving his term as governor. An investigation was dropped after Matteson promised to pay back the state, even though he maintained he was innocent. Read more.

Rep. Jack Franks talks to House Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Currie, D-Chicago, a top deputy to Speaker Michael Madigan and chairwoman of the investigative panel on impeachment, after a committee meeting Dec. 16, 2008. © Abel Uribe/Chicago Tribune/TNS Rep. Jack Franks talks to House Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Currie, D-Chicago, a top deputy to Speaker Michael Madigan and chairwoman of the investigative panel on impeachment, after a committee meeting Dec. 16, 2008.

Lennington Small (1921-1929)

Small, a Kankakee farmer, was elected governor in 1920. Just seven months after taking office, the former state senator was indicted on charges of embezzling millions of dollars while he was state treasurer. He was acquitted, but four jurors later got state jobs, raising suspicions of jury tampering.

Gov. Rod Blagojevich discusses his choice of former Illinois Attorney General Roland Burris to replace President-elect Barack Obama in the Senate on Dec. 30, 2008, in Chicago. © Phil Velasquez/Chicago Tribune/TNS Gov. Rod Blagojevich discusses his choice of former Illinois Attorney General Roland Burris to replace President-elect Barack Obama in the Senate on Dec. 30, 2008, in Chicago.

Still, in 1924, Small was re-elected, despite a Tribune editorial declaring him the “worst governor the state ever had.” Read more.

William Stratton (1953-1961)

Four years after he left the Executive Mansion, Stratton was indicted on charges of violating income tax laws. He was acquitted in 1965 of income tax evasion charges stemming from the way he spent some of his campaign cash. Read more.

Otto Kerner (1961-1968)

After arriving in Times Square for an interview with the television show Extra, former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich and his wife Patti survey the scene in Times Square in New York City on Sept. 9, 2009. © Scott Strazzante/Chicago Tribune/TNS After arriving in Times Square for an interview with the television show Extra, former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich and his wife Patti survey the scene in Times Square in New York City on Sept. 9, 2009.

Kerner was accused of secretly buying stock in 1966 in the Arlington Park and Washingon Park horseracing tracks. The former governor, who was known as Mr. Clean, got the stock at a steep discount in exchange for political favors.

Kerner was found guilty in February 1973 of bribery, conspiracy and income tax evasion. He became the first sitting U.S. appellate judge to be convicted in the nation’s history, also perjuring himself before a federal grand jury.

For his part, Kerner denied any wrongdoing. “I have been in many battles in my life where life itself was at stake,” said the former soldier. “This battle is even more important … because it involves my reputation and honor, which are dearer than life itself, and I intend to continue this battle.” Read more.

Federal agents bring items out of Gov. Rod Blagojevich's office Dec. 9, 2008. Blagojevich and his chief of staff, John Harris, were arrested earlier in the by FBI agents for what U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald called a "staggering" level of corruption involving pay-to-play politics in Illinois' top office. © Michael Tercha/Chicago Tribune/TNS Federal agents bring items out of Gov. Rod Blagojevich's office Dec. 9, 2008. Blagojevich and his chief of staff, John Harris, were arrested earlier in the by FBI agents for what U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald called a "staggering" level of corruption involving pay-to-play politics in Illinois' top office.

Dan Walker (1973-1977)

He didn’t run for governor in 1972, he walked — 1,197 miles from Brookport on the state’s southern border to South Beloit on Illinois’ northern border.

In just a few years, however, Walker had gone from obscurity to pulling off an against-all-odds political upset to being a has-been. On Aug. 5, 1987, a day before his 65th birthday, Walker pleaded guilty to bank fraud in connection with $1.4 million in loans from his failed First American Savings and Loan Association of Oak Brook. Read more.

George Ryan (1999-2003)

Convicted in 2006 on 18 felony counts, including racketeering conspiracy, tax and mail fraud and lying to the FBI. Prosecutors accused him of receiving illegal cash payments and gifts during his time as secretary of state and governor. The former governor spent more than five years in federal prison in Terre Haute, Ind. After his conviction, he was occasionally released for a few hours to visit his wife, Lura Lynn, before she died of cancer in 2011. He was released from home confinement in 2013. Read more.

Rod Blagojevich (2003-2009)

The first impeachment of a governor in Illinois history occurred in 2009 after Blagojevich was charged with attempting to sell the Senate seat once held by President Barack Obama. At Blagojevich’s first trial, he was convicted of lying to the FBI. At a second trial, in 2011, he was found guilty on more widespread charges, including the attempted sale of the Senate seat. President Donald Trump commuted Blagojevich’s 14-year sentence in 2020, and he was released from a Colorado prison. Read more.

Gov. Rod Blagojevich enters his impeachment trial in the Illinois Senate, Jan. 29, 2009, in Springfield, Ill. © Abel Uribe/Chicago Tribune/TNS Gov. Rod Blagojevich enters his impeachment trial in the Illinois Senate, Jan. 29, 2009, in Springfield, Ill. Rep. John Fritchey, D-Chicago, reacts to the House vote Jan. 9, 2009, to impeach Gov. Rod Blagojevich at the statehouse in Springfield. © Michael Tercha/Chicago Tribune/TNS Rep. John Fritchey, D-Chicago, reacts to the House vote Jan. 9, 2009, to impeach Gov. Rod Blagojevich at the statehouse in Springfield.

Join our Chicagoland history Facebook group for more from Chicago’s past.

Have an idea for Vintage Chicago Tribune? Share it with Ron Grossman and Marianne Mather at rgrossman@chicagotribune.com and mmather@chicagotribune.com.

Reporters talk to Rep. Milton Patterson, D-Chicago, who was the only one to vote against impeachment of Gov. Rod Blagojevich at the statehouse in Springfield on Jan. 9, 2009. After the vote, he said he didn't think it was his job to vote to impeach the governor. © Michael Tercha/Chicago Tribune/TNS Reporters talk to Rep. Milton Patterson, D-Chicago, who was the only one to vote against impeachment of Gov. Rod Blagojevich at the statehouse in Springfield on Jan. 9, 2009. After the vote, he said he didn't think it was his job to vote to impeach the governor.

©2022 Chicago Tribune. Visit chicagotribune.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Attorneys Sam Adam Jr. (left) and Sam Adam Sr. talk with Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich (right) as they leave Blagojevich's home in the Ravenswood Manor neighborhood of Chicago.

Attorneys Sam Adam Jr. (left) and Sam Adam Sr. talk with Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich (right) as they leave Blagojevich's home in the Ravenswood Manor neighborhood of Chicago.
© Tribune photo by Bonnie/Chicago Tribune/TNS
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