The 68-year-old former pharmacist from Kankakee, Ill., will leave the political world on Monday, having served one term as governor to cap off a 35-year political career that included stints as Illinois House speaker and lieutenant governor, before he served eight years as Illinois' secretary of state.
It's that last post that haunts Ryan.
While running the office that includes management of Illinois' driver testing facilities, low-level staffers provided commercial driver's licenses to unqualified truck drivers in exchange for bribes. One of those unqualified drivers caused a 1994 accident in Wisconsin that killed six children from Chicago.
Ongoing investigations by the U.S. Attorney's office in Chicago turned up suggestions that Ryan not only knew about the illicit activity, he didn't care enough to stop it and allowed his staff to interfere with federal investigators.
Dozens of secretary of state employees have pleaded guilty to various charges, while a former inspector general served a prison term. Ryan's chief of staff, Scott Fawell, is now on trial, and many Illinoisans wonder when -- not if -- Ryan himself will be indicted.
That threatens to overshadow Ryan's four years as governor, during which he sparked a massive road and school repair program across the state, twice visited Cuba and met with Fidel Castro to promote trade and also forced a serious study of the flaws in Illinois' death penalty system.
Ryan went so far Saturday as to provide clemency for all death row inmates -- turning the bulk of their sentences into life prison terms and ensuring Illinois won't have another execution for years to come. That inspired University of Illinois law school officials and death penalty opponents to nominate Ryan for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Illinois' most cynical political observers joke Ryan will receive the prize as part of an "Oxford education" -- a prison term at the minimum-security federal prison in Oxford, Wis. But speculation about Ryan's legacy for most people is a choice of death penalty opposition or dead children.
Ryan has never received due credit in Illinois for his death penalty stance because it is not popular. Some people would have been content with the status quo -- even though 12 people were executed during the 1990s while 17 death row inmates were exonerated because new evidence showing they had been wrongly convicted.
Others insist the only reason Ryan took an interest in the death penalty was to try to divert attention from the dead children, noting he opposed any serious study of the issue when he first became governor in 1999.
"Four years ago, I never would have guessed the road would lead me here," Ryan said. "To championing reforms of our capital punishment system, to intervening in the effort to help ... men find justice where the courts would not grant relief."
But as governor, Ryan permitted only one execution -- that of Andrew Kokoraleis in March 1999 for the rape-murder of a woman in the Chicago suburbs.
Shortly thereafter, Ryan imposed a moratorium on executions and created a task force that spent two years studying Illinois' criminal code. It recommended 85 changes in criminal procedures to restrict instances where the death penalty could be sought and also to provide for better legal representation for defendants in capital cases.
Ryan stands alone on this issue.
Other states considered execution moratoriums but so far only Maryland has followed suit. In other states, officials feared they would be perceived as coddling criminals. No other state has done as detailed a study as Illinois of its death penalty system.
But the Illinois General Assembly ignored most of the task force's recommendations.
The state's GOP-led Senate last year approved a watered-down version of capital punishment reforms that Ryan threatened to veto. But the Democrat-led Illinois House saved him the trouble by stalling the bill, saying it would be addressed in the future.
When Ryan had the Illinois Prisoner Review Board hold special hearings last year to consider clemency requests for the 158 inmates on death row at the time, he hoped repeated tales of legal abuse would sway the public to his side.
Instead, prosecutors across the state gained control of the process -- turning the hearings into endless tales of horror and grief from the surviving family members of murder victims.
"The system has proved itself to be wildly inaccurate, unjust and unable to separate the innocent from the guilty, and at times (it's) a very racist system," Ryan said. "Yet we couldn't pass a (reform) package in Springfield. I don't know what it takes."
The sad truth is that the people most eager to keep alive the driver's license issue -- with its accompanying images of dead children -- are the ones who despise Ryan's death penalty reforms and the rest of his record as governor.
Conservatives thought Ryan, a lifelong Republican, was one of them. When he was speaker of the House, he used his power to prevent Illinois in 1981 from considering whether to ratify the federal Equal Rights Amendment.
That caused it to fall short of ratification and some women's rights activists still blame Ryan for the ERA's failure.
But because he sided with liberals on the death penalty, met with Castro, approved various government fee increases for the state infrastructure repairs and also vetoed bills that would have imposed assorted restrictions on a woman's ability to abort a pregnancy, many Republicans say Ryan abandoned them.
As a result, they are more than willing to let him twist in the wind and blame him for "killing those kids." Had Ryan acted more to their liking on the death penalty and other issues, they would have defended him and probably even re-elected him as governor.
Democrats who had not won an Illinois gubernatorial election in 26 years were more interested in electing "one of their own" than in defending Ryan -- even though privately many Dems admit Ryan was sympathetic to their interests.
So Ryan gets to slink out of the Statehouse in the dead of night, with the Capitol doors hitting him in the rump on his way out.
But Ryan's tarnished image will clean up in future years, even though there are many political officials and pundits who will spend the rest of their professional lives trying to prevent that from happening.
Judicial and political observers believe tidbits coming from various court filings connected to the federal investigation point to Ryan's eventual indictment on some sort of corruption charge, with multiple counts of mail fraud or wire fraud piled on to make it sound more ominous.
But Ryan may turn the tables on prosecutors by claiming he did not know his staff was so out of control, while also punching holes in the testimony of those who imply he did know. It helps that Fawell and others with direct contact to Ryan have refused to cooperate with prosecutors.
The degree to which Ryan is pre-judged among Illinois residents -- he leaves office with an approval rating barely over 20 percent -- also should not be underestimated. An inability to get a neutral jury could prevent any conviction from being upheld.
Should a Nobel Prize become reality, it also would go a long way toward washing away the driver's license issue. Francis Boyle, a University of Illinois law school professor who previously was on the board of Amnesty International, said he has been told the Nobel committee in Norway will regard the license scandal as "just politics in America."
One should not overlook the possibility of the Nobel committee giving the prize to Ryan because his actions on the death penalty are so at odds with U.S. policy. This year's prize was given to former President Jimmy Carter in part because of his opposition to President Bush's views on how to deal with terrorism.
A Nobel Prize would put Ryan in the same league with Mikhail Gorbachev and the Dalai Lama, although parallels also can be drawn to the prize awarded to slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. In his time, King was denounced by some as an "agitator," "communist" and "pervert" for wanting to disrupt the societal mores that made African-Americans second-class citizens.
So while Ryan's critics want his name to go down with Otto Kerner Jr. and Dan Walker -- two other Illinois governors who went to prison after leaving office -- it's likely that 50 years from now Ryan's as-yet-unborn great-grandchildren will hold their heads high, proud of being related to the man who jump-started serious reforms of the criminal justice system.
And those demanding his scalp will wind up looking like parochial fools who could not appreciate the rare political official in our midst who had the courage to do the right thing.
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