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National Pundits Overplay GOP Surge In Illinois

Charlie Wheeler headshot
WUIS/Illinois Issues

Is Illinois still a “blue” state?

Will Mike Madigan work with a Republican governor?

Those were among the “insightful” questions being posed by national pundits and talking heads after Bruce Rauner’s solid victory last month over Gov. Pat Quinn in one of the country’s most closely-watched, bitterly contested gubernatorial contests.

Folks here at home know the answers, of course: clearly yes, in both cases.

While Rauner’s win easily played into a national narrative of a resurgent GOP in the nation’s heartland, rebuffing President Obama even in his home state, the actual election results told a far different story in Illinois.

Granted, in a few short weeks, Rauner will move into the Executive Mansion, breaking a 12-year Democratic hold on the state’s top job. GOP challengers ousted two incumbent Democratic congressmen, and Republican Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka won a second term. Republicans also shaved one seat from the Democrats’ Illinois Senate stranglehold; with the loss of state Sen. Mike Jacobs of East Moline, Senate President John Cullerton will have “only” a 39-20 majority. 

Elsewhere on the ballot, however, the GOP wave so self-evident from afar proved quite elusive up close.  U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin posted a double-digit win and two other GOP targets— U.S. Reps. Bill Foster and Cheri Bustos— survived handily.

Democratic incumbents Attorney General Lisa Madigan and Secretary of State Jesse White both coasted to new terms, and in a contest not decided until two weeks after the election when the final provisional and absentee ballots were counted, Democratic state Sen. Mike Frerichs of Champaign edged Republican state Rep. Tom Cross of Oswego by less than one vote per precinct for the open treasurer’s office. 

Perhaps the biggest Election Day surprise, though, was the outcome of voting for all 118 members of the Illinois House, which saw Madigan, the House Speaker, hold onto each of the 71 Democratic seats the party had going into the election. Few people saw that coming; most of the pre-election speculation involved whether House Democrats would lose more than two or three seats.  The moral of the story might well be to never, ever, bet against Madigan, who as the old adage goes plays three-dimensional chess while his opponents are playing checkers.

So to those who might still be wondering as they pontificate from either coast: Yes, indeed, Illinois is still a blue state, notwithstanding the fact that a Republican candidate who spent upwards of $27 million of his own money was able to beat the incumbent governor with the lowest approval rating in the country by some 160,000 votes, roughly 4.5 percentage points.

Which brings us to the second question— Madigan adjusting to a Republican governor. As the esteemed philosopher Lawrence Peter Berra might way, “It’s like deja vu, all over again.”

Although Madigan’s critics on certain editorial boards and among Republican campaign strategists try to portray the speaker as the cause of everything that’s gone wrong in Illinois since Lincoln was assassinated, in fact even casual students of Illinois history should recall that for most of the Southwest Sider’s time in public life and House leadership, Republicans held the governorship.

Consider his timeline: Madigan first was elected to the House in 1970, and spent his first two years learning the legislative ropes under Republican Gov. Richard Ogilvie.

Democrat Dan Walker became governor in 1973, but never got along with most of the legislature as he sought to wrest control of the Democratic party from Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley. When Daley decided to dump Walker in the 1976 primary, Madigan’s 13th Ward favored Daley’s guy, Secretary of State Michael Howlett, by more than 2-to-1.

Madigan assumed the No. 2 post in the House, majority leader, in 1977, when Republican Gov. Jim Thompson started the first of his record-setting four terms, and Madigan became speaker in 1983, midway through Thompson’s third term. With the exception of two years since then— 1975 to 1977— Madigan held the top spot with Republican Govs. Jim Edgar and George Ryan, until 2003, when Gov. Rod Blagojevich ended the 26-year GOP hold on the governorship.

In summary, Madigan has been part of House leadership for 37 years— including 29 of them as speaker— with a Democratic governor for only the last 11. And after a roughly six-month honeymoon, Madigan became Blagojevich’s chief nemesis, finally leading to the 2009 impeachment resolution. Relations between the speaker and Quinn have not been as hostile; perhaps a better description would be benign neglect on Madigan’s part, as the House has ignored many of the governor’s pet initiatives and kept him on the sidelines in major deal-making.

In contrast, on balance Madigan as leader worked well on the major policy issues of the day with all three Republican governors, men who shared the belief that governing was about getting results, not making ideological points. On budgeting, for example, the annual routine was the governor and the four legislative leaders would hash out final details in a series of meetings the last few weeks of the legislative session, and rank-and-file members largely would ratify the agreements, even if they involved tough votes.

For instance, Madigan’s House Democrats provided needed votes to pass Thompson’s temporary income tax in 1983, and the speaker reprised his role six years later, although the 1989 hike stemmed less from wanting to help the GOP governor and more from Madigan’s desire to provide state dollars to help shore up city finances for new Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley.

When Edgar in 1997 proposed a tax swap, trading higher income taxes for dollar-for-dollar property tax cuts and more money for public schools, Madigan maneuvered the bill through the House with almost all Democratic votes; only seven Republicans voted “aye” against the wishes of party leaders. Senate President James “Pate” Philip, a Wood Dale Republican, blocked a floor vote in his chamber, effectively killing what would have been the most significant  property tax relief and school funding reform in decades.

Likewise, Madigan worked with Ryan and the Senate Republican majority to pass Ryan’s massive public works program in 1999 and later on state budgets, down to such details as making sure that Ryan’s last budget in spring, 2002, was written into a Senate bill. What difference did that make? Well, state revenues were tanking in the wake of the September, 2001 terrorist attacks and the ongoing recession, and Madigan knew House Democrats were unwilling to vote for a budget containing the deep cuts needed to deal with the revenue shortfall. Nor would they accept any budget-cutting vetoes by the governor. Using a single Senate bill for the bloated budget meant that Ryan’s vetoes— ultimately totaling some $550 million— would be considered first by the Republican-majority Senate, with the House unable to add back any money not first approved by the Senate. The strategy worked; not a penny of the $504 million in general funds Ryan sliced from the spending plan lawmakers sent him was restored by Senate Republicans, and House Democrats never got the chance to undo the cuts.

Even some head-butting between the governor and the speaker which at first might have appeared to be political jockeying, upon closer examination involved more fundamental issues. Take Thompson’s use— some would say abuse— of the amendatory veto, a constitutional provision which allows governor’s to rewrite bills sent to them by lawmakers. As a delegate to the Illinois Constitutional Convention in 1970, Madigan supported the plan— which he reflected later was probably his biggest mistake at Con-Con— and as speaker, he often rejected Thompson’s proposed changes as going further than mere tweaking. Some observers saw this as a political power struggle between the speaker and the governor over the substance of the legislation. But if one was watching closely, as often as not the disputed changes quietly surfaced later as amendments to other bills that then followed the regular course of legislation. Bottom line, Madigan was protecting what he saw as the legislative branch’s proper role in lawmaking under the separation of powers tenet fundamental to Illinois and national government.

Later, in spring, 1991, Madigan and his counterpart, Senate President Philip Rock of Oak Park, locked horns with Edgar during the Republican’s first months in office, in particular over the new governor’s push for limits on how much local governments could request in property taxes, so-called tax caps. Edgar and Republicans wanted the caps to apply to all local governments, while the Democrats drew the line at Chicago, Cook County, and other home rule communities. The ultimate compromise imposed caps in the suburban collar counties, where tax bills had risen most dramatically, but spared home rule units like Chicago and Cook County. While on one level clearly a political standoff, more fundamentally Madigan and Rock were protecting the city and the county from what they viewed as suburban interference.

The examples are illustrative of two of Madigan’s core beliefs— respect for the institutions of government and the need to protect the City of Chicago’s interests from the barbarians at its gates, whether they want to limit the city’s ability to manage its own affairs via home rule, or to steal its assets, a la past GOP efforts to set up a suburban-dominated commission to run O’Hare Airport.

So if Bruce Rauner learns from his GOP predecessors— Thompson, Edgar and Ryan— and comes into office wanting to be a genuine problem-solver and not someone who panders to his party’s ideologues; if he respects the institutions and is mindful of Chicago’s legitimate interests; if he’s someone open to compromise and most importantly, someone whose word can be trusted once a deal is cut, the new governor and the long-time House speaker should get along just dandy.  

Charles N. Wheeler III is the director of the Public?Affairs Reporting Program at the University of Illinois Springfield.

Illinois Issues, December 2014

The former director of the Public Affairs Reporting (PAR) graduate program is Professor Charles N. Wheeler III, a veteran newsman who came to the University of Illinois at Springfield following a 24-year career at the Chicago Sun-Times.
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