The strange political odyssey of Scott Lee Cohen has come to a close.  See link.  Cohen was the unexpected winner in a political primary for Lt. Governor in a multiple candidate race.  An early entrant into the race he spent lavishly to build early name recognition and eked out a narrow win over the favored candidates.  There is plenty of egg on many faces, and justifiably so.

Cohen made an ambiguous disclosure about a previous battery arrest, but thinking he had no chance to win no media outlet bothered to investigate any of this until he actually won the nomination. None of his opponents or the party  establishment bothered to check Cohen’s shady background either.  Exposes like this abruptly popped up when the media realized that a candidate they failed to vet had actually won.

It is in some ways reminiscent of the 2004 Illinois Senate election when the leading (and relatively unvetted) Democratic candidate Blair Hull was torpedoed a week before the election by disclosures in his divorce file which he tried to avoid.  The Republicans failed to get the divorce file on their winning candidate Jack Ryan until after the primary, leading to a tragicomic farce in their attempts to find a replacement.  That election is notable of course because it saw the rise of one Barack Obama into national politics.

The position of Lt. Governor in Illinois is a cushy job with no responsibilities.  It was amusing to see various candidates in the recent primary promise to bring changes that they have no ability to provide.  There is a legitimate question as to why the position exists at all.  In fact, Illinois like most other states has a surfeit of elected positions.  The general public probably cannot distinguish between the function of comptroller and treasurer at the state level.  At the local level it is a mystery why certain positions like the commissioners for park districts and water districts (and in some states the position of coroner) are subject to elections rather than becoming civil service (and non-patronage) positions that allow experienced people to perform these jobs.  Then there is the issue of judicial elections, which as Justice Sandra Day O’Connor has pointed out opens up a Pandora’s box of ethical conflicts while requiring a public to vote on judges they have never heard about and about whom they generally do not bother to take the trouble to read about.

General voter disinterest in the political races at the bottom of the ticket opens the door for the Scott Lee Cohens’ to enter based largely on name recognition or the pull of the party machine.

Direct elections for many of these positions arose from the desire for more democracy in the late 19th and early 20th century.  But it also results in state executive teams that may not be pursuing the same political goals.  It can also make it harder to assign responsibility and blame for the actions of government.  The states may be better served with fewer elected positions at the top (like Governor and Attorney General) with the rest nominated subject to the approval of the legislature.  It could allow for a more coherent functioning of state governments with no doubt as to where the buck comes to a stop.

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