Politics: A GOP political strategist turns to popular culture to define the Dems

Dec 1, 2001

Charles N. Wheeler III
Credit WUIS/Illinois Issues

With the filing date for next year’s elections just a few weeks away, perhaps it’s no surprise that political operatives already have begun sniping at potential rivals, gearing up for the really serious badmouthing next year.

In that vein, some Republican spear carriers have been disparaging one possible Democratic statewide lineup as the “All My Children” ticket, drawing on the popular ABC soap opera.

The targets of the GOP scorn appear to be a quartet of Democrats who share the suspect — at least in some Republican eyes — traits of being both young and well-pedigreed politically. 

They include:

  • U.S. Rep. Rod Blagojevich, 44, a gubernatorial hopeful and son-in-law of Richard Mell, Chicago alderman and 33rd Ward committeeman.
  • State Comptroller Daniel Hynes, 33, who is seeking re-election and is the son of Thomas Hynes, former Senate president and Cook County assessor.
  • State Sen. Lisa Madigan, 35, a candidate for attorney general and the daughter of Michael Madigan, speaker of the Illinois House.
  • State Rep. Thomas Dart, 39, who is running for state treasurer and is the son of William Dart, chief corporation counsel for the late Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley.

Never mind that it’s more than three months until the primary election that will determine who will be the Demo-cratic nominees, or that Blagojevich and Madigan must overcome Demo-cratic challengers to become the party’s standard bearers. The “All My Children” line is just too cute for Republican minions to pass up.

“The Illinois Democrats seem to believe this is the House of Lords, rather than a representative government,” one GOP functionary told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. The potential lineup “reeks of inexperience,” he added. “There’s a lack of the necessary credentials for some of the offices being sought by these kids.”

Perhaps said critic’s tone might have been less condescending, were he better informed on Illinois political history. After all, people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.

If the implication is that youthfulness is the problem, consider former Gov. William Stratton, a beloved GOP party elder who died in March at age 87. Those familiar with Illinois history no doubt will remember his sobriquet as the “Boy Governor,” earned upon his election in 1952 at age 38, the youngest man to hold the office in 70 years. That victory followed earlier ones as state treasurer at age 28 and as a U.S. representative at age 26, making him the youngest member of the 77th Congress. 

Or consider former U.S. Sen Charles Percy, who two years before his election to the Senate was the 38-year-old Republican nominee for governor in 1964. Or former Gov. James Thompson, elected to the first of his record four terms in 1976 as a 40-year-old novice.

But perhaps it’s not age. Maybe the GOP hangup is with the four Demo-crats’ political connections. That, too, is an argument fraught with hypocrisy for Republicans; who could be so naive as to argue that family ties played no part in launching George W. Bush on the path that ultimately took him to the White House? Or consider former U.S. Sen. Howard Baker Jr., a Tennessee lawyer who was the son-in-law of Illinois’ U.S. Sen. Everett McKinley Dirksen well before he was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1966 with the help of his legendary father-in-law.

There’s even a political dynasty in Gov. George Ryan’s background. When the governor was a freshman Illinois House member in 1973, one of his mentors was former state Sen. Edward McBroom, a Kankakee Republican holding the same seat held for more than a dozen years by his father, former state Sen. Victor McBroom, the long-time Kankakee County GOP chairman.

Nothing in the foregoing refresher course constitutes an endorsement of any of the Democrats, of course. Rather, the point is that neither age nor family tree should be a primary focus in Campaign 2002. Instead, voters should evaluate each candidate by several criteria, none more important than the individual’s position on the key issues. Experience — what someone has done — counts, of course, but perhaps not as much as vision — how the person would address the critical problems facing the state.

For example, no challenge looms larger for those who will be elected next year than the state’s current budget crisis. A stagnant economy and soaring health care costs may be the main culprits behind the looming red ink, but the governor and lawmakers must share the blame for their eagerness to spend the erstwhile surplus while embracing rosy revenue projections.

The current fiscal plight also is an unhappy vindication for Hynes, who has been warning about coming cash crunches for the past two years. Apparently, his 33-year-old eyes enabled him to read the economic tea leaves better than the folks who put the budget together — the governor and the four legislative leaders — despite their average age of 64 and their 146 years of collective state government experience.

Nor should Illinoisans be satisfied with hoary “I’ll cut the waste” rhetoric or lame promises not to raise taxes when candidates discuss the state’s fiscal condition. Instead, voters should demand identification, line item by line item, of which agencies the budget-cutters would trim to eliminate the waste, or of how many programs the anti-tax pledgers would be willing to sacrifice under a worst-case scenario. If the candidates will not produce such specifics, voters would be wise to be skeptical of the claims.

Finally, Republicans might consider one other reason to eschew the “All My Children” tag for the Democratic hopefuls: The namesake TV show has been a ratings success and Emmy Award winner for more than three decades. One assumes that’s hardly the fate the GOP would wish for the Democratic ticket.

 

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

Illinois Issues, December 2001