George Ryan

How corruption, fraud, and cronyism taught him to hate the death penalty.

Illustration by Charlie Powell

If Joe Voter were asked to sketch out the characteristics of his ideal politician, he would probably come up with someone who looks a lot like George Ryan, or at least the George Ryan of the past year or so: blunt, straightforward, unconcerned with focus groups and opinion polls. Since announcing in August that he would not seek re-election as Illinois governor, Ryan has turned into the political equivalent of the uninhibited cubicle-dwelling protagonist of Office Space. The Chicago Sun-Times gaped at Ryan’s willingness “to say or do just about anything without worrying how it might play in Peoria.” Ryan spent his final days in office doing what voters always say they want out of their politicians. Which, in the end, is exactly why Illinois voters are no doubt glad there aren’t more politicians like George Ryan.

Throughout his long political career in Illinois—from county board member to state representative to lieutenant governor, secretary of state, and governor—Ryan showed a Huey Long-like willingness to push the limits of the powers of his office. Ryan’s last-minute decision last week to clear out Illinois’ death row by commuting the sentences of 167 inmates to life in prison was simply a high-minded variant of an old pattern: using every tool available to him to achieve his aims. In the end, Ryan’s willingness to skirt the edges of the law to achieve his goals may finally have caught up with him—he’s widely expected to be indicted in a scandal that dates back to his tenure as Illinois secretary of state. But his familiarity with the fringes of legality may also have been the critical factor that changed his views on capital punishment—not because, as some people joke, he knows what it’s like to be on the wrong end of the law, but because he’s so well-versed in corruption, fraud, and the abuse of power.

The 68-year-old Ryan grew up in Kankakee, Ill., a small town 60 miles south of Chicago that features a Republican machine that the Chicago Tribune once called “a farm club version of Chicago’s vaunted Democratic organization.” It was there that he learned to exploit patronage and the perks of office to advance his career, and also where he developed, to put it nicely, an Emersonian approach to political consistency (having said as governor, “Only a fool wouldn’t change his mind”). Before his famous flip-flop on the death penalty, Ryan had also changed positions on abortion, gay rights, gun control, and gambling.

Ryan’s changes of heart weren’t necessarily done out of political expediency—it’s hard to find a Republican who blasts the National Rifle Association or dismisses the concerns of murder victims’ families in attempts to gain political points. If anything, his choices seemed to stem from the opposite desire—to do what he thought was right, and damn the political consequences. Ryan’s political hero, he once told the New York Times, was a former Republican governor of Illinois who lost his re-election after pushing through a state income tax.

But Ryan can’t, as much as he might like to, blame his unpopularity on his “growth in office.” Free-thinker though he may be, his career was nevertheless felled by his constant desire to push the limits of power. As a politician, he has as much in common with Richard Nixon as he does with Helen Prejean. A scandal dubbed “licenses-for-bribes,” dating to Ryan’s eight years as Illinois secretary of state, dogged him throughout his tenure as governor. Federal prosecutors allege that Ryan’s employees sold commercial driver’s licenses in exchange for cash bribes—$170,000 of which ended up in Ryan’s gubernatorial campaign fund. Over the course of the investigation, the scandal has reached further and further into Ryan’s inner circle, members of which are accused of using state funds illegally to pay for Republican campaigns (including Ryan’s). Fifty people have already been convicted in the scandal, and Ryan himself is expected to be indicted at some point.

Perhaps the best evidence of Ryan’s unflagging commitment to exploiting his own executive power is that despite this scandal he shamelessly attempted to pack the Illinois government with political supporters in his final days by appointing them to obscure, hard-to-remove sinecures in the state government. Questionable last-minute appointments were given to a host of Ryan cronies, including his communications director, budget director, and a state senator and suburban mayor accused of selling a police badge to a convicted drug dealer. Ryan even tried to stuff unqualified friends into jobs at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library. The media and most voters were justifiably outraged, and Ryan’s Democratic successor fired 35 of Ryan’s last-minute appointees on Tuesday, his first full day in office, and said that as many as hundreds more Ryan appointees might be removed.

Death-penalty abolitionists consider Ryan a hero for courageously opposing an immoral, unjust system. But even if Ryan’s blanket commutations were the right thing to do, it’s tough to oppose massive, irreversible acts of state power while endorsing a politician who loved them to the end. But, hey, it takes one to know one.