State of the State: There are two governors: the deal-maker and the risk-taker

Jan 1, 2001

Christopher Wills

One governor revels in pork-barrel politics, arranges sweet deals for cronies and gruffly dismisses questions about corruption. Another governor challenges the party line on abortion and guns, reaches out to blacks and gays and offers bold legislation.

And both governors are George H. Ryan.

The first two years of Ryan's administration have often seemed like a tale of two governors: one shackled to yesterday's policies and politics, the other willing to embrace (though often awkwardly) new ideas. Sometimes Ryan even manages to demonstrate the conflict in the same event. Just consider his Clintonesque series of town meetings last summer. Ryan started this new outreach with a little old-fashioned pandering, handing out millions of dollars to coal companies in the first meeting in the heart of coal country.

Of course, it's impossible to get a clear look at Ryan: His performance can only be seen through the haze of the scandal that has devoured his popularity.

Would Ryan have imposed a moratorium on executions if he did not need to divert attention from the federal investigation of bribery during his time as secretary of state? Would he have vetoed the ban on state-funded abortions for poor women if he planned to run for re-election? We'll never know which decisions were made by a governor adapting to the responsibilities of office and which were made by a desperate politician. Perhaps Ryan himself does not know.

And now Ryan enters the second half of his term. The feds continue to haunt him. Polls show the public mistrusts him. He needs a productive legislative session if he hopes to win a second term, but the new year promises such contentious issues as drawing new political maps or divvying up education money. Both Ryans will need to work together for him to succeed: the deal-maker guiding legislation through the General Assembly; the risk-taker offering ideas that will take voters' minds off scandal.

Voters certainly had notice of Ryan's divided nature. After years building a reputation as a Main Street conservative Republican, Ryan tried some new tactics when he ran for governor. He mixed the no-new-taxes rhetoric with an outreach to gays. He mixed tough-on-crime policies with an attempt to appear more moderate on abortion and gun control than his conservative Democratic opponent.

The divide carried over into his governing style.

Ryan took the good-government step of barring his employees from contributing to his political campaign (after he had been safely elected, of course). He joined other constitutional officers in calling for a law banning discrimination against homosexuals. He became the first governor to visit communist Cuba. At the same time, he pushed his $12 billion Illinois First plan, a pork-heavy program to build new roads and schools and sewers. He approved legislation giving special franchise protection to two politically influential businessmen, liquor distributor Bill Wirtz and cola bottler Harry Crisp. He adopted an old Jim Thompson tactic by raising liquor taxes and auto fees immediately after being elected on a no-tax-increase pledge - and he barked "I obviously changed my mind!" as his only explanation.

Ryan says he has not decided whether he will run again. If that is true, perhaps he is watching "Operation Safe Road." Dozens of people, including Ryan's old friend Dean Bauer, have been indicted in the federal investigation into state employees selling driver's licenses and then donating some of the bribe money to Ryan. If the investigation peters out and Ryan has a productive legislative session, he may feel there is still time to rehabilitate his image. But a major new development could shatter that fragile hope. Even without that, Ryan likely will face pressure to step aside.

Attorney General Jim Ryan clearly itches to run for governor. U.S. Sen. Peter Fitzgerald clearly mistrusts the governor and has hinted he might feel compelled to challenge him if George Ryan runs again.

It's hard, however, to imagine Ryan turning this around. Thompson might have charmed the public. Jim Edgar had an image of integrity that might have carried him through. But every time Ryan hits a pothole, he seems to get a shovel and dig deeper.

The indictment of Dean Bauer raises legitimate questions, but Ryan has largely refused to reassure the public with information, claiming he cannot discuss an ongoing investigation. He has rarely used his place in the spotlight to build support for his policies or even explain them thoroughly.

Tax increases, gambling, spending money from the national tobacco settlement - both Ryan and the public would have benefited from a more complete discussion on all these issues. The major exception proves the point: Ryan has repeatedly discussed his execution moratorium, making him seem open and thoughtful while simultaneously giving people something to think about on a vital issue.

Ryan's deal-making, loyal-to-your-pals side reinforces questions about his honesty when it leads him to tolerate shady behavior. Real estate developer Tony Perry stood to make a pretty penny off Ryan's decision to build a prison near Kankakee. Perry gave up his fee when the deal was brought to light, but later arranged to get an even more profitable deal.

Jeremy Margolis has offered Ryan legal advice while getting state contracts and consulting for gambling interests. Corrections Director Donald Snyder has used a state airplane for personal and political trips.

A year ago, Ryan seemed utterly in control. Both Governor Ryans had worked together in masterful fashion. The Deal-maker brokered a compromise on regulating factory-scale livestock farms. The Visionary lobbied, though unsuccessfully, for legislation banning discrimination based on sexual orientation. Both of them took a hand in cutting deals for a Cook County casino and Illinois First, though it required flip-flopping on promises not to expand gambling or raise taxes. The Visionary toured the state and ran commercials boasting of his accomplishments. Autumn came and the Visionary visited Cuba; the Deal-maker remembered to take along a gaggle of Democrats and businessmen. The "Operation Safe Road" investigation, such a big issue during the campaign, had faded into the background. Conservatives were none too happy about his stands on gay rights, gambling and taxes, but most held their tongues. Democrats, some happy with Ryan's moderate tone and others wary of angering a powerful governor, mumbled something polite. Top Republicans praised Ryan to the heavens.

Sure there were problems. Ryan couldn't decide whether to admit he was breaking his tax promise or insist he was raising user fees. He could be seen as both cold-hearted and indecisive on the death penalty - cold-hearted when a spokesman argued that nearly executing an innocent man did not demonstrate flaws in the system and indecisive when he made conflicting statements on the need for further review of the justice system. He was accused of bowing to wealth and political power when he granted special protections to Wirtz and Crisp.

But those were glitches, the exceptions proving the rule that Ryan could navigate the waters of Illinois politics like no one else.

Then the glitches got bigger. Child support checks went astray when the state adopted a new centralized delivery system. Senate President James "Pate" Philip beat Ryan in a special legislative session on whether unlawful possession of a gun should be a felony.

And finally came The Indictment.

U.S. Attorney Scott Lassar indicted Bauer, Ryan's old friend and the man who supposedly investigated corruption during Ryan's two terms as secretary of state. Instead, according to the indictment, Bauer had hidden corruption, had done his best to cover up anything that might embarrass his pal. Suddenly, Ryan was knocked off course and neither the Deal-maker nor the Visionary has been able to set him right.

He took a more passive role in the spring session, largely letting Philip drive the debate over cutting taxes and, finally, allowing him to arrange a truce in the gun-possession dispute. Ryan's first-in-the-nation proposal to let rape victims (as well as homosexuals victimized because of sexual orientation) sue their attackers died stillborn. Following the lead of other politicians, he flip-flopped on the need for cutting the gasoline sales tax. He was quiet during the campaign season, rarely appearing with candidates in tight races.

It must be frustrating for Ryan. He has given us an unprecedented infrastructure program, sweetened with hundreds of local projects. He has addressed injustices in the death penalty system. He has approved plans to mollify the state's powerbrokers - a Chicago Bears stadium, for instance. He has increased education spending and approved tax cuts that send checks directly to the voters. But what people remember is a combination of minor-league corruption and an underling protecting his patron.

Surely Ryan's divided governing style left him vulnerable when things went wrong. Voters pleased by the Visionary's stands on the death penalty or abortion are the most likely to feel betrayed by the corruption under Ryan. Many conservatives were already angry over the Deal-maker's willingness to raise taxes and expand gambling. Those who want a powerful Deal-maker in the governor's mansion surely see Ryan as weakened, perhaps to the point of ineffectiveness.

Which side will dominate as he struggles to regain his footing for the next two years? 

Christopher Wills is the Statehouse bureau chief for The Associated Press.