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Wednesday, Dec. 22, 2010 09:17 pm

Why Tim Davlin was a Statehouse favorite

Tim Davlin
Springfield mayors hold a unique position in Illinois. As the mayor of the state’s capital city, they have access to more state leaders more often and more intimately than just about any other local leader except for maybe Chicago’s mayor.

Tim Davlin took advantage of that position better than most mayors his city has ever had. 

Davlin was a regular at state events and built surprisingly strong relationships in the General Assembly and among statewide officials far beyond what an outsider might have thought possible when Davlin was first elected without any previous governmental experience.

He was also quite popular among his fellow Illinois mayors. Active for years in the Illinois Municipal League, Davlin was eventually elected its president. By chance, I happened to be staying at the same Chicago hotel as the Illinois Municipal League meeting the day Davlin was elected the group’s president. He was fully in his element, and his new position made it even more plausible that he might succeed one day at fulfilling his dream of higher office.

Davlin’s greatest challenge leading the Municipal League was pushing an initially reluctant General Assembly to reform the pension systems for police and firefighters during the recent fall veto session. The legislature refused to touch pensions for first responders during the spring session partly because police and firefighters are so well-respected and because everyone knew that they couldn’t impose the same retirement ages and other restrictions on them. Nobody wants a 67-year-old firefighter showing up at their door when their house is ablaze.

It was a very difficult and controversial issue, but Davlin insisted that it be tackled.  The unions representing the first-responders weren’t happy with being forced to give back hard-won gains, and they initially fought hard.  Davlin kept his cool, never let the discussions turn personal, and firmly insisted on a fair outcome for everyone.

What resulted was something of a surprising rarity for Statehouse politics. Unlike the pension bill, which was quickly jammed through the General Assembly last spring while enraged state worker and teachers’ unions were cut out of the process entirely, the first responders bill wasn’t really hated by anyone. Davlin even attended a function for a police union a few weeks after the bill passed. He was warmly received.

That’s just the way he was. The man actually persuaded the Sierra Club to sign off on a so-called “clean coal” electricity generation plant for his city. That was no simple feat. The Sierra Club hates coal, clean or not. The group has even locked arms this year with Exelon, which produces tons of pollution at its decades-old coal-fired plants, to stop construction of a new clean coal plant near downstate Taylorville.

Davlin certainly wasn’t a saint. He made his share of governmental mistakes and he had his share of enemies in the city of Springfield, like any mayor would. But I do not know of a single enemy that Tim Davlin ever made at the Statehouse. In an environment where you are defined as much by your enemies as by your friends, Davlin literally had no enemies.

Some serious personal financial problems helped derail Mayor Davlin’s political career this fall. Davlin abruptly announced that he wasn’t running for reelection after the news stories broke. We’re still not sure how extensive his problems were, but he assured all who would listen that he would get everything back on track. He had such an easygoing manner and such a long record of success that it was difficult not to believe him. Davlin stopped by an annual holiday celebration of Statehouse lobbyists in Chicago a couple of weeks ago. Friends said he was as upbeat as always and genuinely relieved that he would no longer have to struggle with his city’s tough budget problems.

Sadly, that all ended when Mayor Davlin apparently took his own life last week. Some have speculated that maybe his troubles were worse than everyone thought. But, in reality, nobody really knows why he did it. Actually, it’s impossible to ever know why almost anyone would commit suicide, even if they leave a note. Suicide is an irrational act. Rational minds can never even begin to comprehend what a suicide victim is thinking.

I, for one, will choose to remember Tim Davlin for how he lived. His successor truly has gigantic shoes to fill, not only in Springfield, but throughout Illinois.

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