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COLUMN

Cindi Canary watches Springfield like a hawk

Mary Schmich

February 22, 2009

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Illinois has lived lately in a state of ethical emergency and Cindi Canary has been on call.

You must have seen or heard her. When a government ethics committee needs a member, when the national or local media need a nonpartisan comment, Canary's there, with her throaty voice, her quick laugh and a refreshingly unblustery take on the state's skulduggery.

Curious to know more about her, I went to meet Canary on Friday at the River North office of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, which she founded with the late U.S. Sen. Paul Simon when her son, a high-school senior, was in 1st grade.

Canary's short bio: Born in Massachusetts. Dad worked for Oscar Mayer. Moved 16 times before she landed at New Trier High School. Attended Hampshire College. Lives in Edgewater with her son and her husband, Adam Brooks.

Here's an edited version of our conversation.

Q. Why did you make campaign reform a career?

A. It was an accidental career. I'm pragmatic, kind of cynical, but there is this part of me that's Pollyannaish. Like: 'It's our government, people!' We can do better! It was like Alice into the rabbit hole, though.

Q. Is Illinois at an ethical turning point? Or is the current agitation just more hot air?

A. There is certainly a lot of hot air. This could play out in two ways. A lot of the low-hanging fruit could be picked—tighten up lobbying, improve disclosure a little. Lots of self-congratulation and some headlines. Or people who vote can really speak out and push and we can get the issue of money and politics on the table.

Q. Will people stay interested when the scandals over Rod Blagojevich and Roland Burris fade?

A. That's one of the quirky things about reform. It needs a narrative and it doesn't have a natural one. Instead of saying, "Why don't we make sure we don't have a rascal like Rod Blagojevich again?" ask, "What does good government look like?" In this state we tend to think about what good prosecution is.

Q. Does being a woman affect how you do your job?

A. A lot of the negotiating skills that I bring to the table are skills I used when my son was 5. Sometimes I'm in Springfield and I'll talk to one chamber of the legislature and I'll say, "Did you pick up the phone?" The part of me that's a mom stomps her feet and says, "You guys are going to have a meeting. We're going to work this out."

Q. What would you be doing if not this?

A. I'd like to spend time doing some writing that's more thoughtful than crisis du jour. Or radio because you don't have to wear shoes.

Q. Would you run for office?

A. No.

Q. How do you relax?

A. Travel. And I like to read. In the past two weeks, I've read "The 19th Wife," "The Senator's Wife" and "American Wife." A wife theme.

Q. One thing about you that might surprise the public.

A. I like to cook and throw parties. My husband is in the arts and we have a lot of friends in the arts and there's a lot of time we spend not talking about politics.

Q. Name two things Illinois needs to do to change its political culture.

A. Cap political contributions. And everyone in this state needs to commit five minutes a week to speaking out on how government runs. Send your legislator an e-mail.

Q. In your years on the job, has Illinois become any more or less corrupt?

A. The corruption has morphed. I think there's less corruption because there's a fear of [federal prosecutor] Pat Fitzgerald and the wiretap. You see that fear down in Springfield. And I think there is less public tolerance.

Q. Talk about the difference between George Ryan's corruption and what's alleged against Blagojevich.

A. With Ryan it was old-school corruption, friends and family. With Gov. Blagojevich—I keep calling him governor—it was not as much about enriching those around him, not about building his political power, it was about building his wealth. We didn't see sharing. He was not a good sandbox governor.

Q. Name two Illinois politicians you're sure are honest.

A. Do they have to be alive?

Q. Should Sen. Burris resign?

A. [A long pause.] We may learn more that makes that more clear-cut. What Roland Burris should have done is speak directly to a public that feels very aggrieved by the reports of political corruption.

Q. Do people comment on your name?

A. Yeah. When I was a kid it was "tweet, tweet."

Q. Five years from now: your corruption prediction.

A. I think it will be better. If we don't work to make it better, my question to people is why the hell do you live here? Why are you raising your children here? Why are you investing here? Is this really something you want to tolerate?

mschmich@tribune.com