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Wednesday, Dec. 31, 2003 02:20 pm

Lip service

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The days of the Flintstones are behind us. We are moving into the Jetsons. —Rep. William Delgado, D-Chicago

Politicians may or may not provide strong leadership. Some are good role models, some aren't. You can argue about the wisdom of the laws they pass.

But no one can deny they have a way with words.

They proved it in spectacular fashion during 2003 -- especially the new governor. Rod Blagojevich's attempts to sound both folksy and scholarly produced colorful comments faster than reporters could write them down. He had plenty of help, though. Politicians at all levels made comments that were funny or weird or even, occasionally, honest.

Not that the politicians don't take their duties seriously. As Senate Minority Leader Frank Watson, R-Greenville, said, "We have to be very careful with the people's trust because they've entrusted us with that trust."

The year opened with an historic number of Hispanic lawmakers being sworn in. Rep. William Delgado, D-Chicago, predicted they would be a force for change -- apparently even to the point of inventing cartoon time travel: "The Latino population is here to work, and we and the legislators will encourage that the days of the Flintstones are behind us. We are moving into the Jetsons."

Blagojevich chose a Hispanic official to run the Corrections Department. He seemed to consider Ernesto Velasco's accent noteworthy: "He's the American dream story. He's a Mexican immigrant who came here when he was 13 years old.... Speaks broken English and back then, probably more."

Blagojevich also faced a decision on whether to let riverboat casinos add more slot machines. He had promised during the campaign to oppose gambling expansion, but some people argued that letting current casinos grow was not "expansion."

The governor took a bold position on the question: "That's open to interpretation. Some people might say that is, some people might say it's not. I haven't really thought it through." He eventually thought it through and came out against the idea, scolding lawmakers for considering it.

The biggest problem facing the new governor was a massive budget deficit, which prompted a never-ending stream of questions about how he would erase that deficit. Blagojevich told his questioners to be patient.

"Let me just paraphrase a letter Lord Chesterfield wrote to his son," he said. "An emaciated sot, an enervated glutton and an overindulgent whoremaster may never enjoy the things that they indulge in. Instead, those things should be rewards."

The questions stopped -- at least while reporters tried to figure out who Lord Chesterfield was and what the hell his quote meant.

Other officials were more direct.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Patrick Collins, for instance, had the job of summing up the corruption under former Secretary of State George Ryan. "It was, 'Screw you, taxpayers of the State of Illinois!' " he told jurors in the trial of Ryan's former chief of staff.

Chicago Mayor Richard Daley demonstrated his deft way of deflecting inquisitive reporters after he destroyed the runway at Meigs Field. "You could answer your own question! You could answer your own question! You could answer your own question! I'm not going to answer that," he said.

In fact, Daley replaced former Gov. George Ryan as the state's most defensive politician. For instance, he was asked after Ryan's federal indictment whether Illinois has a culture of political corruption. "Maybe within your family and your media there is a culture of corruption. You. You people like yourself," Daley snapped back.

Of course, reporters aren't exempt from saying strange things. Rebecca Rausch, then a reporter for Channel 20, got a one-on-one interview with Ryan. Her first report lasted long enough for just two questions with the disgraced governor, and one of them was about his television habits. "Do you watch the news?" she asked.

House Speaker Michael Madigan took his tight-lipped approach to new levels when he stopped responding to almost all questions from reporters. And when he did answer, the replies weren't exactly enlightening.

Asked for his thoughts on budget negotiations, the Chicago Democrat replied, "I have no thoughts." When he was pressed for his position on proposed ethics legislation, Madigan showed off his grasp of details: "I'm for ethics."

Senate President Emil Jones took the opposite approach. After years in the shadows as a member of the minority party, the Chicago Democrat won control of the Senate and offered frequent insights into his philosophy of government.

He shrugged off one legislative defeat by predicting he would find another path to victory. "It's a poor rat who only has one hole to crawl in," he said. And when asked where the state would find more education money, Jones dismissed the problem with, "Sometimes magic money happens to pop up."

Jones angrily rejected the view that Senate Democrats abandoned efforts to pass tough ethics legislation in the spring session. "What we passed, we intended to pass what we did pass in the time that we had time to do such," he explained.

And Jones helped clarify the differences between his position on helping ComEd buy Illinois Power and Speaker Madigan's position: "Well, uh, I think the speaker wants ComEd to take over this sick elephant, and the elephant is sick and wants calmer heads to have it, but not be in shape to buy any medicine to get the elephant cured. You know - it's one of those type situations."

No wonder Watson, after one summit meeting with the governor and legislative leaders, complained, "Sometimes when I leave these meetings I feel like I just got stabbed in the stomach."

Other lawmakers had problems of their own.

"Life isn't fair," noted Rep. Bill Black, R-Danville. "Some people are six-foot-two, slim and in good health. Some of us -- like me -- are five-seven, overweight and ugly."

Sen. Patrick Welch, D-Peru, seemed a bit confused when he was presiding over the Senate and wanted to greet a group of Springfield residents who were visiting: "Welcome to Springfield, even though you're from here."

Rep. Susana Mendoza, D-Chicago, tried to cheer everyone up by inviting them to a reception hosted by the Conference of Women Legislators: "We'll expect all our girlfriends there and all our boytoys, too.... See you there or be square."

In October, Blagojevich tackled one of the biggest controversies in the state: a Cubs fan who had deflected a foul ball in a playoff game just as it was about to be caught. "If he commits a crime, he won't get a pardon from this governor. You've got to be looking out for your team," Blagojevich warned.

On other issues, such as how to pay for a program he called a press conference to support, Blagojevich wasn't quite so direct: "You gotta ask [budget director John] Filan on the mechanics of that. Talk to Filan about the mechanics.... There's a way in some other mechanism that Filan has. You gotta talk to Filan. I don't know. Filan handles that."

Blagojevich infuriated lawmakers when he complained they were acting like drunken sailors on a spending orgy. But the governor insisted they were being too sensitive.

"I don't talk about them individually," he said. "I don't say Legislator X is a drunken sailor. Big difference between that and somebody calling you a name."

Emil Jones said the accusation wasn't accurate anyway. "I'm an old man. I haven't been in an orgy in a long time," he said.

The year ended with a reminder that even holidays can be put to political use. Comptroller and U.S. Senate candidate Dan Hynes adapted a Christmas carol to tell us: "On the first day of Christmas, George W. Bush took from me, a strong and vibrant economy."

And just remember: 2004 is an election year.

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