For Illinois Governors, Political Experience Optional

Oct 25, 2018

The upcoming general election will decide whether Republican Bruce Rauner gets another term as Illinois governor or if the voters will choose to go with Democrat J.B. Pritzker.

But there’s one outcome of the election we already know for certain: Illinois will continue its experiment with amateur politicians running state government.

This story begins a few weeks ago, in a Chicago television studio. J.B. Pritzker is taking questions from a few dozen high school students on an episode of the local PBS program Chicago Tonight.

Early on, he’s asked one of the key questions questions of the campaign:

“Why run for governor as your first entry into elected politics. Why not a lower office to gain political experience first?”

Pritzker pivoted to talk about his non-elective experience, like helping launch a business incubator, but he basically rejected the premise of the question, saying he's been around politics a lot.

He ended by saying he didn’t like the direction the state was going, so he “felt like it was time to step up to the plate.”

Pritzker’s assertion that he’s long been in the political arena runs counter to the Rauner campaign message from four years ago, when he regularly boasted of his lack of political experience.

“I've never run for office. I didn’t even run for student council in high school,” Rauner said at the time.

Political scientist Chris Mooney says that kind of message has gotten really popular nationally, but until Rauner, businessmen didn't have much success with it here.

Mooney: “In Illinois, we tend to like our politicians to be professionals. There are places in the country where the guy off the street — got a great idea and he’s ... Mr. Smith goes to Washington kind of thing.

“That’s not our tradition or really our culture,” he says. “So we have actually been slow to the party on this.”

Mooney says Illinois is part of a national trend of really wealthy people going into politics by running for a top office.

“It’s about 25 percent of all state governors right now are like mega super rich. And about half of those, being governor was the first job they ever had in public life,” he says.

Mooney calls these candidates “super-rich neophytes.” He says as a group, their performance in office is mixed. Some are popular, others not. He says Rauner is so unpopular, he skews the results downward.

There can be consequences to this amateurism. Even one of Illinois’ most politically experienced governors says he was taken aback by the challenges of the job.

“I had probably as good a resume as anybody going into the governor’s office,” says Jim Edgar, who was governor of Illinois from 1991 to 1999 — after being secretary of state, Gov. Jim Thompson’s top lobbyist, and a state legislator.

“But jiminy, I've got to say a lot of things surprised me,” Edgar says. “I can’t imagine people that hadn’t had any experience.”

Edgar says there are ways an amateur politician could help himself in the job: Bring in good people. People who know the history and process of Illinois government. And listen to their advice.

“I think anybody who comes in and says, ‘Well I don’t know Illinois government and I don’t care because we’re going to change it’ — well you better know it if you want to be effective,” Edgar says.

Rauner obliquely addressed this point last month, in what’s come to be known as his “reset” speech.

“I believed a dramatic, aggressive approach could shock state government into shape and bring back Illinois,” Rauner said. “I underestimated how difficult change can be in government.”

Whether Rauner really learned any lessons is something voters will have to decide for themselves.

If they go the other way, the past tells us it’s likely Pritzker, as Illinois’ newest novice governor, will have to learn a few lessons of his own.

Illinois Issues is in-depth reporting and analysis that takes you beyond the headlines to provide a deeper understanding of our state. Illinois Issues is produced by NPR Illinois in Springfield.