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.
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?
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.