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Thursday, Nov. 3, 2016 12:21 am

Powell’s politics of pragmatism

How downstate dealmakers got things done

The Dealmakers of Downstate Illinois, by Robert E. Hartley. Southern Illinois University Press, Carbondale. 2016. 194 pages.
Pragmatism used to be a dirty word in government. The pragmatist was too quick to sacrifice principle for the grimy give-and-take of backroom deals, too eager to exploit the interests of the many for the enrichment of the few.

Three such pragmatists were Paul Powell, Clyde Choate and John Stelle of southern Illinois, the dealmakers of Robert E. Hartley’s spare but worthy book about the nature of political clout that helped rule Illinois for 30 years after World War II. Hartley, author of several books about Illinois politics and politicians, has written three books here: a passing history of southern Illinois, brief biographies of the three principals, and a political drama of the times and treacheries of state government during an era of significant change in the state and nation. The latter is by far the most compelling.

The three dealmakers were united by alliances of political convenience, the pursuit of personal riches (Stelle started out rich, Powell and Choate had to scrabble for every penny), and a savvy sense of how to pull the strings of government to achieve their goals.

Chief puppeteer was Powell (the subject of a full biography by Hartley, Paul Powell of Illinois), the crafty, corrupt, clout-laden master of legislative politics from Vienna. At a time when the job of state legislator truly was part time, Powell and his allies, Hartley notes, “were in motion full time.” Powell recognized that ideology and idealism (and ethics) were barriers to accomplishing his objectives and therefore never let them slow him down.

Hartley’s premier example is the effort to expand horse racing in Illinois: “The horse racing floodgates opened in 1949” –  when Powell became House speaker – “providing southern Illinois political interests an opportunity to ride the waves to personal riches.” The expansion was sold to a skeptical legislature with the argument that the state would enjoy a bounty of revenue from increased parimutuel betting (sound familiar?). Powell stacked the Agriculture Committee with allies, selected sponsors to exhibit bipartisanship, and when recalcitrant county fair interests balked, introduced a second bill to increase their state subsidy. With no fanfare or press attention, the bills were introduced just five weeks before the end of the 1949 biennial session. Legislative approval was a given. Not so was an endorsement by Gov. Adlai Stevenson, who had criticized gambling interests in his 1948 campaign. Powell took the case to Stevenson personally, suggesting that if the governor had further political aspirations, a veto would make him unwelcome at any county fair in the state. Stevenson signed the bill, citing the $2.4 million windfall expanded horse racing would bring to the state treasury.

The horse racing legislation revealed a formula Powell (and his floor leader Choate) used time and again to leverage control over a bloc of downstate lawmakers to push an agenda beneficial to southern Illinois. First, cross party lines to establish a bipartisan base; then, expand the base by crossing regional lines (102 counties held fairs each summer); next, buy off opposition; finally, co-opt a reluctant governor. Oh, and make money on the side.

While Powell was shepherding the racing legislation through the General Assembly, speculators in Chicago (with Powell’s encouragement) were busy creating a new corporation to promote horse racing at Sportsman’s Park and other tracks. When the legislation passed, investors offered Chicago Downs stock to Powell and other legislators responsible for its passage. The cost – 10 cents a share. The first dividend – one dollar a share. Powell’s investment, in his wife’s name, produced a $16,900 return. Others received far lesser amounts, but were noteworthy for their bipartisan, bicameral and geographical blend, from Granite City to Chicago.

The formula was successful for 30 years of Powell’s dominating influence and political cunning in achieving his goals, which, beyond personal enrichment, included fostering the growth of Southern Illinois University and creation of the Department of Children and Family Services.

And while critics acknowledged Powell’s legislative wile and pragmatic approach, they recoiled at the corrosive and corrupt use of those traits for personal gain. Chicago reformer Abner Mikva said he was in awe of Powell’s grasp of the legislative process and his ability to manipulate it. “I tried to emulate his idea of building coalitions and compromising. I was inclined to stand on principle too much, and it never got me much.” There was no one, Mikva concluded, who was “so crooked or so talented.”

Hartley is forgiving. Progress has a price. Legislative activism, he notes, “prevailed with a bipartisan flavor and rewarded practitioners who knew how to forge coalitions and balance the benefits across the state.” Even as the political landscape changed around them, Powell, Stelle and Choate remained a potent force, able to “maintain control by adjusting tactics and applying the time-tested backroom methods that usually worked. And to the winner went the spoils: local projects, patronage and insider money opportunities.”

So be it. “Looking across the spectrum of modern Illinois political history,” Hartley writes, “the achievers rarely were puritans.”

Just pragmatists.  

Don Sevener is a former writer and editor at Illinois Times. He is now a partner in a governmental consulting firm, MJS Associates.

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