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Wednesday, March 28, 2007 09:10 am

The giant who changed Illinois politics

Arrington pushed the Statehouse into the modern era

Power House: Arrington from Illinois By Taylor Pensoneau (American Literary Press, 2006, 416 pages, $24.95)
Untitled Document William Russell Arrington — best known as Russ — was a familiar face and factor in the Illinois General Assembly from 1945 to 1973. Moreover, he was one of history’s most dominant legislators, with ideas that influenced state government, especially the Senate, for decades. Many of the state’s elected leaders have since honored him as one of the greatest lawmakers of any time — in fact, longtime Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan is quoted thusly: “No doubt, Senator Arrington is the father of the modern General Assembly.”
Arrington is not a name that jumps out of the Illinois history books. He never served in a state executive position or ran for statewide office. Most Illinoisans have never the opportunity to vote up or down on his performance, ideas, and assumptions about the role of a legislature, and therein lay the challenge for author Taylor Pensoneau: What hard evidence is there that Arrington was a giant, and is it convincing? That was not the only challenge. Pensoneau had to make this a legitimate tale, not just a paean. In the hands of a writer less qualified by background and knowledge than Pensoneau, this could have been an embarrassment and a snore. Instead, because of the writer, it is a lively gallop through an intriguing period of Illinois history and a major contribution to an understanding of the evolution of state government. In many ways the book is as much a reflection of Pensoneau as it is of Arrington. Pensoneau, biographer of Govs. Richard B. Ogilvie and Dan Walker, knows the times. He paints effective word pictures of life in the Legislature of the 1950s and 1960s, the bars and nightlife, the denizens of the pressroom, the tussles of the weak and the strong, the frustrations of Gov. Otto Kerner, and the determination of Ogilvie. The author makes those times feel as current as last month. Pensoneau, Springfield correspondent for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch from 1965 to 1977, uses his background to craft crisp and defining biographical sketches throughout the narrative. Notable among them are embezzler Orville Hodge, insurance mogul W. Clement Stone — perhaps the author’s finest profile — and Govs. William Stratton, Kerner, and Ogilvie. These are combined with succinct snapshots of such familiar names as Paul Powell, Paul Simon, and Alan Dixon, as well as seeming dozens of Arrington acolytes. But the central figure is Arrington. Born in Gillespie and educated in East St. Louis and at the University of Illinois, Russ Arrington developed a work ethic that can only be described as all-consuming. His family had little, and young Russ worked for every dime that made it possible for him to earn a degree in law. Arrington’s skill as a lawyer and businessman provides insight into the man’s drive to achieve, to gain power and use it, and to accumulate wealth — honestly, it should be noted. Arrington was relentless in almost every pursuit, a true man of action. These characteristics made him stand out from others in Springfield. Arrington entered the state House of Representatives from suburban Chicago in 1945. He served 10 years in the House, proposing a mountain of legislation and demonstrating an interest in good-government bills and fiscal controls. The time of ascension began with his election to the Senate in 1954. He served through 1972 — until illness forced his retirement — during which time the House and the governorship often were in the hands of Democrats. He effectively blunted the initiatives of the opposition while proposing meaningful legislation, not all of which passed. He became the most powerful Republican in state government by way of sheer will and determination. A good example of his timing and leadership is seen in the wake of the Orville Hodge scandal of the 1950s. Arrington took the initiative with Republican Gov. Stratton to implement fiscal policies to protect the state and its citizens. Ten years after he entered the Senate, Arrington was chosen as leader by his colleagues (although he had been before, without the title). During his Senate tenure, Arrington earned a reputation in Springfield as partisan (but able to compromise), arrogant, impatient, argumentative, domineering, bright, and successful. Pensoneau draws the picture carefully but clearly.
Pensoneau documents the key years of leadership in the 1960s, when Arrington earned the designation “father of the modern General Assembly.” Arrington introduced the staff-support system by hiring bright people and providing staff members for chairs of Senate committees with his own money. That alone shook the General Assembly to its roots. He dragged the Legislature kicking and screaming from the archaic biennial meeting system to annual sessions. Along the way he reinvented Senate Republicans and elevated the Legislature by publishing a list of proposals that would determine the debate — he called the agenda “Building a Better Illinois.” Arrington announced initiatives in reapportionment, revenue-raising, and ethical standards for public officials. Until then, neither party had bothered to publish goals to guide its policy initiatives Arrington had major roles in consideration of civil-rights legislation — it nearly cost him a leadership position with the Republicans — and maintaining controls over the state budget and spending. Anxious to reform state government, Arrington became a booster of the constitutional convention that met in 1970. These are definitive actions, but there is special drama in Pensoneau’s description of Gov. Ogilvie’s drive to pass a state income tax with a compliant Arrington at Ogilvie’s side. They both paid the political price: Ogilvie served just one term as governor, and the state Senate was taken over by Democrats in 1970, at which time Arrington was relegated to minority status. Pensoneau leaves no doubt as to his high opinion of Arrington or his belief that the senator deserves the esteem showered on him by friend and foe. But this is not an unfounded testimonial. The proof is there for the reading. Arrington’s performance was remarkable and, in retrospect, historic. Pensoneau’s conversational writing style and solid research are notable achievements. They make this a book to read.

Bob Hartley is the author or co-author of six books about Illinois politics and history, the latest of which is Death Underground: The Centralia and West Frankfort Mine Disasters.


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