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Thursday, Nov. 4, 2010 06:32 am

A word of advice to the new governor

I will never forget the night Paul Lis was fired.

My parents were at my house, but I refused to budge from my barstool because I couldn’t miss this. Not for them. Not for anybody.

Lis was a bigtime political fixer back then. He has known just about everybody who was anybody in Illinois and Chicago politics. He’s been an informal adviser to many of the old top dogs, and at the time he was fired he was working for Gov. George Ryan, Senate President Pate Philip and House Republican Leader Lee Daniels. Ryan was trying to pass a bill to toughen an assault weapons law, but Philip and Daniels were having none of it.

Lis was siding with Ryan, but Philip, a legendary conservative who loved his guns, was furious at both the governor and Lis, whom Philip falsely blamed for hatching the idea. When Pate strolled into the tavern, I figured things were about to explode. And then Pate stomped right up to Lis and after a brief and heated conversation announced that Lis was fired.

“You can’t fire me!” Lis roared back, adding that, technically, he reported to Philip’s chief of staff and campaign manager.

Pate insisted that he could, indeed, fire Lis, and a series of unprintable expletives were exchanged. The entire bar was silent as everyone watched this extraordinary event unfold. A Senate president is not often yelled at in public, at least not in Springfield.

Lis has always been well known in political circles for his sharp tongue. He loves his cigars and in the old days would play with his false teeth while he talked. He doesn’t care a whit what you think of him. And he loves humbling the haughty.

But Lis is also one of the brightest guys around. The truly smart people understand this, and they listen to him even when they totally disagree.

Lis tried to warn George Ryan over and over about the sort of people the doomed governor surrounded himself with. Ryan listened on every other topic but this one, probably to his undying chagrin.

A born contrarian, Lis would usually argue the other side of issues with Ryan just to make sure that the positions Ryan eventually took were well thought out. He describes his role as “the skeptic in the room who had to be persuaded.” Lis would also regularly burst into Ryan’s office when he thought the governor was making a mistake.

“Strength,” Lis says, “Is the ability to advance your agenda.” And when you fail to get things done, you look weak, no matter the reason.

Gov. Pat Quinn is a prime example. Quinn operated with huge Democratic majorities in both legislative chambers. But too often Quinn and his people tried to push proposals “and then were forced to abandon them because they had not done their homework,” Lis complains. He’s right. Rod Blagojevich had the same problem with surrounding himself with enabling know-nothings. They let him do whatever he wanted, right up until his arrest and impeachment.

Quinn, Lis says, never had the opportunity to really grow. He went from one low-level government job to another and then was suddenly thrust into the governorship. And the “people who enabled him in his lesser positions, continued to enable him,” Lis grumbles.

He has the same fears about lack of growth regarding Quinn’s Republican opponent Bill Brady, who has always been basically a backbench legislator without any real governmental responsibilities. To say the least, Lis is not optimistic about the future.

I always figured Pate Philip would hire Lis back, but he didn’t and as a result he was never quite the same leader he’d been. If George Ryan had listened to Lis more, he might not be in prison today.

The point is, whoever our new governor is (I’m writing this before election day), he needs to hire at least one crazy, brilliant, experienced, fearless contrarian like Paul Lis and then listen. He doesn’t have to agree, but he must listen.

Paul says he’s too old for the task, and he’s now married to a wonderful woman. If you’re going to do that job, Lis says, you have to be single. A spouse might not understand that your boss fired you after you called him a freaking half-wit at the top of your lungs while your false teeth fell to the barroom floor.   

Rich Miller publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and thecapitolfaxblog.com.
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