Politics: The governor’s departure marks the end of an era in Illinois

Sep 1, 2001

Charles N. Wheeler III
Credit WUIS/Illinois Issues

As the 2001 baseball season winds down, fans across the nation are saying farewell to a pair of the game’s best, Baltimore Orioles third baseman Cal Ripken Jr. and San Diego Padres outfielder Tony Gwynn.

In similar fashion, the Illinois political scene is losing one of its top performers with the decision by Gov. George Ryan not to seek a second term.

Forcing Ryan’s retirement was the lingering licenses-for-bribes scandal that had driven his approval ratings down to the point that winning another term seemed even less likely than an appearance by Ripken or Gwynn in the 2001 World Series.

The governor’s coming departure marks the end of an era, as he seems the last in a long line of leaders from both parties to typify the state’s traditional political culture. For such old-time pols, holding office meant jobs and contracts and help for friends, never mind party labels. Public policy ought to be set by pragmatic consider-ations, not ideology. Government’s job was to solve problems; thus compromise — aka deal-making — was essential. And loyalty to the boss was unwavering.

Ryan’s old-school approach certainly has shaped his tenure as governor, frequently to the consternation of his Republican Party’s right wing and to the surprise of the Democratic left. 

Consider these high-profile issues:

  • Illinois First. The $12 billion public works program is bringing needed improvements to every corner of Illinois. Conservative lawmakers and anti-tax forces condemn Ryan for breaking a campaign pledge not to raise taxes; the governor says he changed his mind in light of the state’s deteriorating infrastructure.
  • The death penalty moratorium. As a state representative, Ryan voted for capital punishment, but as governor, he agonized before allowing the one execution that’s occurred on his watch. Afterward, he decided there should be no more until he could be sure safeguards were in place to keep innocent people off Death Row.
  • The Medicaid-funded abortion ban veto. Anti-abortion forces saw betrayal in Ryan’s veto of a measure to prohibit public funding for abortions if only a woman’s health — but not her life — were at stake. In his veto message, Ryan said the state should not allow discrimination against poor women. Moreover, he noted in his retirement speech, Medicaid-funded abortions for health reasons, as existing law allows, are not common, and in fact have decreased since the veto.

“I’d make all of these decisions again, without question, because they were the right thing to do,” the governor told the hometown crowd in Kankakee. And like his trip to Cuba and his gun control efforts, they were pragmatic, not ideological, choices, true to his political roots.

For such old-time pols, holding office meant jobs and contracts and help for friends, never mind party labels. Public policy ought to be set by pragmatic considerations, not ideology.

Deal-making is a key component of the culture, of course, and Ryan may be the best practitioner ever among Illinois’ 39 governors. But then no chief executive since 1883 had the advantage of being a former House speaker. Besides a 10-year legislative career, Ryan was lieutenant governor and secretary of state, all the while honing his negotiating skills.

As governor, Ryan brokered agreements among warring legislative factions on such issues as a $3.5 billion aid package for the ailing coal industry, a bill of rights for HMO patients, tighter regulation of factory hog farms and subsidies to lure Boeing’s headquarters to Chicago.

The culture also expects one to help out friends, especially those who demonstrate their affection financially. Thus, other deals brought legislation protecting the Wirtz liquor interests, enriching the Duchossois racing empire, sending a lucrative riverboat casino to Rosemont Mayor Donald Stephens, and clearing the way for McCormick Place expansion and a new Soldier Field home for the Chicago Bears. And when the Illinois Gaming Commission nixed Rosemont, Ryan replaced two of the naysayers. Anti-gaming forces saw the switch as a way to revive the Rosemont boat; if they’re right, at least credit the governor for keeping his word on the deal.

But the same old-time political values that Ryan has practiced faithfully for some 40 years, from the Kankakee County courthouse to the Executive Mansion, ultimately have proven to be his undoing.

For all his substantial achievements as governor — $1.5 billion more in school funding, health insurance for 125,000 more low-income kids, some 30,000 acres more of open space — Ryan has not been able to overcome a deep-seated conviction among many of Illinois’ citizens that he knew — or was remiss in not knowing — about the rampant corruption in the secretary of state’s office during his watch.

To date, 38 people have been convicted of wrongdoing involving selling driver’s licenses, including Dean Bauer, a longtime friend whom Ryan named inspector general to root out such wrongdoing. At least $170,000 of the bribe money went into the governor’s campaign war chest, according to federal prosecutors.

In the Bauer indictment, prosecutors described a cover-up going back as far as 1993, including blocking an inquiry into whether the trucker involved in a 1994 accident in which six children died had received his license illegally, a charge later substantiated.

The scandal did not come to public light until after the 1998 primary, and Ryan’s camp successfully downplayed the corruption charges through the November election. The first guilty pleas came just days after the governor’s victory, though, and the issue has bedeviled him since.

With hindsight’s perfect vision, one might wonder what would have happened had Bauer defied the automatic political reflex to circle the wagons and instead pursued the wrongdoing aggressively?

Had a few Ryan loyalists dared to buck the seamy side of old-school politics back then, Illinois today might well be looking forward to a second term for one of its finest graduates.

There would have been some bad press, certainly, and perhaps a bit of partisan sniping. But the spinmeisters would have had a good two years before the governor’s race to stress how quickly Ryan acted to stamp out corruption and how diligently he fought drunk driving and promoted organ donations and literacy.

Had a few Ryan loyalists dared to buck the seamy side of old-school politics back then, Illinoisans today might well be looking forward to a second term for one of its finest graduates.



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

Illinois Issues, September 2001