Intrigue and Scandal at the Illinois State Fair Print
Commentary/Politics - Illinois Politics
Tuesday, 19 August 2003 18:00
A costly mistake by the parents of a 4-H club member has turned into some bad publicity for Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich. Representative Shane Cultra (an Onarga Republican) wants an apology from the governor over his remarks last week about the State Fair animal-doping controversy.

As you might have heard, Mongo, a prize steer owned by 14-year-old Whitney Gray of downstate Gilman, was given a mild pain-killer and swelling-reducer because it had a sore back leg. Whitney was showing Mongo at the State Fair, and a limping steer would have a distinct disadvantage in the (believe it or not) highly competitive world of state-fair animal contests.

Whitney’s mom had asked the advice of a high-level fair official before Mongo was given the medicine, but she neglected to follow all the rules and didn’t contact the fair’s chief veterinarian.

So, when Mongo won the junior grand championship, it was automatically drug-tested and then disqualified because the disallowed substance was still in its bloodstream.

When reporters asked Governor Blagojevich about the controversy, he responded half-jokingly, “If we discover that someone is cheating, whether they be human beings or cows, they’re going to pay a price.”

The statement, like all of Blagojevich’s attacks on everyone else in Illinois politics, received wide play, including mentions in several national news outlets.

But Representative Cultra believes that the governor went too far this time by attacking a 14-year-old 4-H member like she was just another corrupt politician. “Your remarks were unfair and an undeserved insult to Whitney Gray and her parents,” Cultra wrote in a letter to the governor.

A Blagojevich spokesperson said the governor did not intend to call Ms. Gray or her parents “cheaters.” The spokesperson said the governor does not make the State Fair rules, and it was an unfortunate occurrence that Gray’s steer was disqualified.

I was once the victim of a bit of 4-H cheating, so I have some experience on this topic. And, as it happens, the cheating took place in Iroquois County, where Mongo is from. Without going into too many farm technicalities, I was cheated out of a champion ribbon at the Iroquois County Fair by what we believed was an illegal steer. We contended that the animal was a disallowed breed, but fair officials ruled against our appeal.

Back then, lots of people cheated, including one of my best friends, who sneaked a crossbred steer into a purebred show (giving himself an advantage). In those days, the use of steroids to enhance the animals’ muscle structure was also widespread and even tacitly encouraged. Steroids are now banned. Families paid “groomers” hefty fees to give their animals a leg up on the competition.

The stakes were high. Champion steers brought big bucks at auction, and could be taken to other fairs, where they could earn more money from prizes. The ultimate contest was the Illinois State Fair, and only the most successful steers had a chance at that show. Auction proceeds from a state grand champion steer can go a long way toward paying for college. It’s a very intense little subculture.

Later, after I left 4-H, a scandal broke when it was discovered that parents were purchasing cattle that had won championships in other states and then used altered ownership papers to enter them in state fairs as homegrown animals.

So, it’s not really a “shock” to me that supposedly salt-of-the-earth farmers would bend the rules for their kids.

But this is a bit of a stretch. If Mongo’s owners were cheaters, they wouldn’t have informed that State Fair official about their intent to use a pain-killer. Cheaters don’t usually tell the authorities when they’re about to cheat. The Grays simply didn’t fully understand the rules.

Plus, everyone in the business knows that all grand champions are drug-tested, because of past scandals in other states, so I just think it’s highly doubtful that the owners intentionally cheated.

So did the governor tee off on a 14-year-old girl? Did he use her unfortunate mistake to once again brazenly promote his oft-stated commitment to ethics in government?

Well, yeah. But I think the governor probably talked before engaging his brain – as his staff’s backtracking showed when Representative Cultra spoke out. As he often does, the governor went for the quick laugh and the easy press pop. He’s a naturally combative guy, but he could probably tone it down a little.

Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter. He can be reached at (http://www.capitolfax.com).