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The Players: Will President Obama Help Governor Rauner Institute Term Limits?

Amanda Vinicky

Eight years, tops, and he's out. That was a promise Bruce Rauner made on the campaign trail. The promise of term limits helped get him elected as Illinois' governor. But he hasn't been able to persuade lawmakers to get on board with putting a hard deadline on their own careers; same goes for redistricting.

In his latest attempt at persuasion, Rauner --- a Republican — cited Illinois' most powerful, well-known Democrat: None other than President Barack Obama, who of course will soon be returning to Springfield to address Illinois lawmakers.

What each man has said lately about term limits and redistricting is the subject of this latest edition of The Players, your guide to who's who in Illinois politics and what they're up to.

A job that means for eight months now, I've been covering how it is that Illinois leaders have been unable -- or unwilling, depending on how you look at it -- to pass a budget.

In broad terms it comes down to this: Gov. Bruce Rauner, a Republican, wants to make a handful of changes he says will make Illinois more prosperous. Only once they pass will he work with Democrats on balancing the budget.

The hitch is that Democrats have supermajorities in the General Assembly, and they're generally against Rauner's agenda. They say it goes against their party's very ideals to, say, weaken unions by doing away with the prevailing wage, or to side with Rauner's business-friendly changes to workers' compensation and the court system.

That's not all Rauner, wants though. He's also calling for two constitutional amendments, dealing with how state legislative districts are drawn and limiting how long legislators can hold office.

He touched on them most recently in late January, during his state of the state address, saying "like it or not, there's a serious deficit in public trust when it comes to government in Illinois. Citizens don't trust their government, and businesses don't either. We pay for this trust deficit in lost economic growth - victims of a widely held perception that everything in Illinois is lobbyist-tested, special-interest approved. We need to regain public trust. We need to restore employer confidence that Illinois is a safe place to do business, so they will invest more here, growing more high paying jobs, and expanding our tax base. That starts with fundamental changes -- term limits and redistricting reform."

Back in 2014, candidate Rauner tried to institute term limits through a citizen referendum; his self-funded, well-funded campaign collected more than enough of voters' signatures to get it on the ballot. But the courts ruled that plan unconstitutional. So, no dice.

Separately, a "remap" group tried to use a citizen initiative to take drawing state legislative districts out of lawmakers' own hands, and give the responsibility to an independent commission. The courts also knocked down that effort -- not to mention that there were problems with its petitions.

Another attempt’s in the works this time around; its organizers say they've got high hopes they'll succeed this election cycle.

But Rauner's not banking on that; he wants the state legislature to do get redistricting and term limits on the ballot. That way, there's no voter signatures or citizen initiative required. If lawmakers vote do to it, proposed changes to the constitution would go right to the November ballot.

But neither redistricting nor term limits have gained traction in the General Assembly.

For one: the latter half of Illinois' two-year legislative session is just underway, and Senate President John Cullerton has pretty much always operated under the premise that his chamber will only deal with constitutional amendments in that second portion.

For two: House Speaker Michael Madigan is against both.

That's a long-held stance, but here's what he said about it back in July: "The courts of Illinois disapprove the placement of those constitutional questions on the ballot. They were Republican party campaign issues, designed to be used in Republican campaigns. They haven't changed. That's the purpose of the Rauner advocacy of those two issues. Republican Party campaign purposes."

There's also the thought that elected officials have a natural inclination to protect the status quo; it's the system under which they got elected, after all (like Madigan and Cullerton, the GOP leaders of the House and Senate -- Jim Durkin and Christine Radogno, respectively -- have also been around longer than Rauner's hoped-for eight-year limit. As for redisticting, Durkin and Radogno each represent reliably Republican districts).

Here's the twist that Gov. Rauner put on it during his state of the state address: As if trying to goad Democrats into going along with his plans, he brought up President Barack Obama.  Remember, no matter how he’s done in national polls, Obama's remained popular with Democrats in his home state.

"President Obama has come out strongly in favor of both term limits and redistricting reform," Rauner said, seemingly without equivocation -- which raised some eyebrows.

Obama has spoken out about redistricting lately, in front of the whole nation, during his final State of the Union address.

"If we want a better politics, it's not enough just to change a congressman, or change a senator, or even change a president. We have to change the system to reflect our better selves," President Obama said. "I think we've got to end the practice of drawing our congressional districts so that politicians can pick their voters and not the other way around.

It's worth noting: the President specifically mentioned Congressional districts, not state legislative ones, and those are two different animals.

In fact, after the State of the Union address, Obama's ally, Illinois' senior U.S. Senator, Democrat Dick Durbin, did a conference call with reporters, and that very issue came up.

My friend and colleague Chris Kaergard of the Peoria Journal Star asked Durbin if Obama's criticism of gerrymandering be conceived as a call to Democrats in Illinois to get on board with supporting a redistricting.

"Well, you've got to keep this in mind: There are two different things at play here," Durbin responded. "The reform movement in Illinois is about legislative redistricting reform. The President, I thought, was addressing Congressional redistricting. Those are two related, but different issues. If we are talking about a national change, in terms of Congressional redistricting, that applies to every single state, I'm open for this conversation. What I worry about, though, is picking and choosing states for reform. Those that don't sign up are going to keep their own majorities, and sadly in most cases, that's the other party."

(That's not the case in Illinois, where Democrats have been in control for years).

It does get back to Madigan's assertion that Rauner's fixation on redistricting is a campaign tactic, a way to make it easier for Republicans to win elections.

Independent Maps -- the group that's trying for a referendum to redo how state legislative seats are drawn in Illinois -- denies any allegation of partisanship, and has backers (and detractors) on both sides of the aisle.

But back to Rauner's claim that he and President Barack Obama are of like mind when it comes to redistricting. It's not like Obama endorsed the governor's plan. Still, the President's sentiment on the topic, at least, was pretty clear.

When though, I wondered, did Obama talk about term limits? Nothing came to mind, and a Google search didn't easily come up with anything definitive.

So I asked Rauner's press team.

They pointed me to a speech the President gave last June, before a conference of African nations.

Rauner's office points out that during it, Obama said "nobody should be president for life," and "your country is better off if you have new blood and new ideas. I'm still a pretty young man, but I know that somebody with new energy and new insights will be good for my country. It will be good for yours, too, in some cases.

"Yes, in our world, old thinking can be a stubborn thing," Obama said before the African Union. "That's one of the reasons why we need term limits -- old people think old ways."

The audience laughed when Obama went on to say, "and you can see my gray hair, I'm getting old."

It's Speaker Madigan who often seems to bear the brunt of Rauner's critiques -- about term limits and everything else the governor says is wrong in Illinois.

Madigan will be 74 in April, and he's been Speaker of the Illinois House for all but one term since 1983. I'm certainly not going to call him old, but he does have gray hair. And he's by far the longest serving speaker in Illinois; he's almost got the record for longest-serving speaker in the nation, ever.

Say what you will about Madigan's power, he's no dictator. Obama was speaking about the need for presidential term limits in a continent whose people have suffered under brutal dictatorships -- regimes ruled by blood and war.

So was it a stretch for Rauner to infer that President Obama shares his belief in term limits for Illinois state senators and representatives?

I'll leave that for you to decide.

I did reach out to the White House to clarify, but I didn't get a prompt response.

No matter: Obama will be in Springfield on Feb. 10 to give a speech to the General Assembly the White House says will be "about what we can do, together, to build a better politics -- one that reflects our better selves."

If that sounds familiar, it's similar wording to his explanation of the need for Congressional redistricting during his 2016 State of the Union address.  So, it's plausible that maybe Obama will raise the issue again as part of his upcoming Springfield speech.

If not, Rauner has reportedly extended an invitation to Obama to go to Obed & Isaacs, a downtown Springfield brew-pub, while he's in town.

Imagine that: the governor and president, talking term limits over beers.

That definition meets the criteria for The Players: who's who in Illinois politics and government, and what they're up to.  Cheers!

Amanda Vinicky moved to Chicago Tonight on WTTW-TV PBS in 2017.
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