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Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2007 09:19 am

Illinois politics: What’s deeply wrong?

Pols forget people, and parties don’t stand for much

Untitled Document Dan Hynes, the state comptroller, had it right when he said recently, “There is a growing sentiment out there among everyday people who normally don’t follow state government that this is ridiculous.” The legislative session, with its childish bickering and frustrating delays, drew a similar conclusion from those who do follow state government. On Oct. 14 the State Journal-Register let loose with an editorial decrying the “dysfunctional Democratic team” with its “ego-driven idiocy” that has caused “stupid, unnecessary gridlock foisted on us by people who have lost sight of what public service really means.” The Chicago Tribune popped its cork, urging that the governor be recalled: “As awareness builds that the governor’s obstructionism has kept Illinois from meaningful action on education reform, school funding, government ethics, public pension indebtedness, and other challenges, more voters may warm to the notion of firing their inept governor.”
The rhetoric will calm once a few more bills pass and a few more compromises are reached. The dust will settle on this year’s tumultuous session. Once people realize that education has been well-funded, health care has been expanded, and capital spending needs have been met, they’ll forget that it took till November to accomplish what should have happened in May or June. Before we all go back to saying, “Illinois politics is messy but it works,” it would be better to linger over what’s deeply wrong. Comptroller Hynes, one of the few thoughtful politicians in town, offered some perspective in an August speech to the Democratic County Chairmen’s Association meeting in Springfield. “There is a great debate going on in Illinois government about whether to expand health care, put more money in education, about whether to raise taxes to fund those programs, whether to have a capital bill to build roads and infrastructure and schools and mass transit throughout Illinois. That is why we’re elected to office, to have that debate. To stand up for what we believe in. But . . . in the heat of this debate, many people in elected office in Springfield have forgotten what our basic commitment is to the people of Illinois: that under no circumstances will we allow their lives to be at all impaired or harmed by a debate. Many people rely on the smooth operation of state government. Please remember why we’re involved in politics in the first place: because people count on us.”
That politics needs to be in touch with people is an old refrain but relevant to today’s ego-driven pols. The theme is recalled in Thomas Littlewood’s biography of Henry Horner, Illinois’ Depression-era governor (Henry Horner and His Burden of Tragedy, Authorhouse, 2007). A politician of the day described one of the Chicago ward bosses as a reformer: “He is not the kind that hollers reform with his right hand uplifted and his left hand reaching out for the coin. He goes into the home of the poor man who has no bread on the table and whose children have no clothes and shoes. He goes into the home where the shadow of death has fallen and he calls the undertaker and says, ‘Paddy Flaherty’s mother is dead. Paddy is broke. I’ll pay the funeral expenses.’”
Those who aren’t well acquainted with Illinois politics marvel that the three who have fought to a near-stalemate are all Democrats, until it is explained that political parties in Illinois don’t stand for much. This bothered a previous Democratic governor of Illinois, who complained: “Once political parties stood for definite principles and their platforms proclaimed them boldly to the world. The tendency now is for political parties to skirt principle and follow expediency, and their platforms are often drawn to evade or straddle every live issue. The idea now is to cajole rather than convince; to court the support of conflicting interests though it involves the deception of one or both. We are substituting office-seeking and office-holding in place of real achievement and instead of great careers in public life. We are facing a harvest of slippery, bleary-eyed and empty mediocrity.”
Gov. John Peter Altgeld said that in 1895. With its language updated slightly, his conclusion also carries across the centuries: “Never before did this Republic call so loudly as it does today for strong, sturdy leaders who will stand up defiantly, and dare to do right.”  

Contact Fletcher Farrar at ffarrar@illinoistimes.com.


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