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Thursday, Jan. 3, 2013 06:09 am

Arts of the patron

What Mary Lee Leahy did and didn’t change

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Mary Lee Leahy
PHOTO BY GINNY LEE
Mary Lee Leahy died Dec. 12, after a busy life working for good causes as an attorney and public servant. Perhaps unfairly, she is remembered mainly as a Holy Warrior against patronage in public employment. This alone made her passing notable in Springfield, where patronage has been a way of life since they unloaded the wagons from Vandalia.

So has reforming patronage, come to think of it. Illinois first got rid of patronage hiring in 1905, when the reformist State Civil Service Law was passed and the Civil Service Commission created. It has been got rid of several times since, killed off by court cases and prosecutions, yet still it walks the streets. That’s because most office-holders who are against patronage as candidates embrace it after they win and are faced with the responsibility of staffing and managing administrative departments staffed by hundreds.

Unlike his boss, Walker’s deputy governor Victor De Grazia was one of the people who actually had to make state government work. Making it work means being able to hire and fire, but as De Grazia complained in a 1981 interview, if you protect people from dismissal under civil service, “departments become post offices where it’s impossible for anything to get done.”

The system De Grazia inherited in 1973 would have been recognizable to any post-Depression governor. David Knox, who worked in personnel under five governors, once recalled that the Secretary of State had a job classification whose duties consisted entirely of paper-clipping checks to driver’s license applications. It was inefficient, but that was the point; more people needed to do the work meant more people indentured to the party in power.

This sort of thing was general in the bureaucracy. Because so many jobs required no training beyond how to find one’s desk, the state government machinery did not grind to a halt when thousands of employees were replaced overnight after a change of administration. Indeed, the jobs were kept simple so as to facilitate these changeovers.

Middle managers however were often exempt from the ax. They were usually holdovers from one regime to the next because only they knew how to actually run things. The result was that every new administration had to take on people who wanted to do things their way rather than the administration’s way. “You’re elected to do a certain thing, and you have a bureaucracy that fights it,” complained De Grazia. “The ones at the upper levels…are the ones that give you the trouble. The garbage collector doesn’t give you the trouble. It’s the foreman that gives you the trouble, or the assistant superintendent gives you the trouble, and those are the ones who are [protected by] civil service.”

Which is where Mary Lee Leahy came in. You probably know the story. When Big Jim Thompson came to town he set up a new Office of Personnel in his office whose job it was to subject his agencies’ preferred picks to the party test. Both parties – Big Jim placed job hunters who had Democratic sponsors too. That didn’t much benefit the Republican Party but it did wonders for the popularity of the Thompson Party.

A State of Illinois employee from Springfield, Cynthia Rutan, claimed that she had been passed over for promotion even though she passed the abilities test because she failed Thompson’s politics test by refusing to agree to a shakedown in the form of a campaign contribution. Leahy took the inevitable lawsuit to the U.S. Supreme Court, whose ultimate ruling ostensibly banned patronage hiring for all government jobs except for the so-called “policy positions” of the sort that so vexed Vic De Grazia.

The wisdom of leaving elected officials free to staff departments with sympathetic managers was conceded even by Leahy. As a result, these days each new administration inherits the rank-and-file workers like the office furniture, rust, dents and all. It is middle management that changes. That’s good for the new administration but arguably bad for state government. In the old days, the people who knew what needed to be done had to cope with staff who didn’t know how to do it; these days, staff who know how to do things must cope with managers who don’t know what needs to be done.

Because policy people are the only ones who can be easily fired, it is in the interests of each new administration to define “policy” expansively to include career administrators who are thus exempted from protections. Management staff has joined unions en masse because contracts provide protections that Rutan does not. And why these days it is unions rather than civil service that turn some departments into post offices where it’s impossible for anything to get done.

Dick Durbin wrote that Leahy “changed our state for the better and ended some of the worst abuses in government hiring.” Ending the worst abuses is a real reform in Illinois, however, and Leahy deserves credit for that.  

Contact James Krohe Jr. at KroJnr@gmail.com.
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