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Illinois Issues
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Ends and Means: Republican fortunes have taken a real nosedive

Charles N. Wheeler III
WUIS/Illinois Issues

As Labor Day approaches, and with it the traditional beginning of the fall campaign season, Illinois Republicans might be tempted to replace the party’s longtime elephant symbol with Joe Btfsplk, the Li’l Abner character always drawn with a dark cloud over his head.

Already on the wane, GOP fortunes took a real nosedive after Jack Ryan, the party’s nominee for U.S. Senate, bowed out following disclosure of embarrassing allegations of sexual high jinks contained in child custody records.

The party became a national laughingstock as it scrambled to find someone — anyone — to replace Ryan. Big-name vote-getters like former Govs. Jim Thompson and Jim Edgar weren’t interested; neither were a host of lesser party luminaries. Even former Bears coach Mike Ditka said no to party overtures.

GOP poobahs engendered another round of derision when they finally went out of state to find a candidate, tapping conservative commentator Alan Keyes, a Maryland resident, to face Democratic state Sen. Barack Obama.

Add to the Ryan fiasco the widespread belief that President George W. Bush is a decided underdog to Democrat John Kerry in the race for Illinois’ 21 electoral votes and the pending federal trial of former Gov. George Ryan on racketeering, tax fraud and other criminal charges, and one can understand why cartoonist Al Capp’s human jinx would be an appropriate mascot for the state’s embattled Republicans.

Thoughtful Democrats ought not take too much pleasure from the GOP’s plight, however, though they might welcome it as a timely distraction from their own travails. Indeed, the party escaped by only a few weeks having to deal with similar embarrassing revelations about its Senate nominee.

Heading into March, commodities trader Blair Hull appeared to hold a commanding lead for the Democratic U.S. Senate nomination after pouring some $30 million of his own funds into the race. But his campaign imploded after divorce records were made public containing accusations of spousal abuse, and Obama surged to the nomination. Had the messy details of Hull’s divorce not surfaced until after the primary, Democrats, too, might have been forced to find a replacement.

While Democrats managed to dodge that bullet, storm clouds are gathering on the horizon for the party, with potential silver linings for Republicans. Recall that the gloomy days for the GOP began with the unfolding of the licenses-for-bribes scandal involving George Ryan’s tenure as secretary of state. Voter revulsion in November 2002 helped Gov. Rod Blagojevich end a 26-year Republican hold on the Executive Mansion and 
his party mates win four of the other in both chambers of the Illinois General Assembly.

But the same federal investigators pressing charges against the former governor have ongoing inquiries into allegations that Democratic leaders used legislative staff for political work. In addition, at least two federal probes are under way into possible wrongdoing by Blagojevich Administration appointees, one involving hospital siting decisions and another dealing with contract awards for state employee group health insurance. Should any of this federal scrutiny lead to indictments, Democrats stand to lose the electoral advantage they enjoyed in 2002 from the Ryan scandals.

Perhaps most threatening to Democrats’ long-range hopes, however, is the budget debacle they orchestrated this spring. Despite controlling the governorship and both legislative chambers, Democrats could not agree by the May 31 deadline on a spending plan for the fiscal year that started July 1. Instead, their intramural squabbling that resulted in the longest overtime session in modern history (54 days) allowed Republicans to infuse the budget with GOP priorities and left party leaders embroiled in verbal warfare.
Blagojevich professed to be pleased with the outcome of the lengthy struggle, in which the governor and Senate President Emil Jones, a Chicago Democrat, were allied against Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan of Chicago and the Republican leaders, 
Sen. Frank Watson of Greenville and 
Rep. Tom Cross of Oswego.

Indeed, the $45.5 billion blueprint for operations spending included more for education and health care, the governor’s top priorities. But the increases were not as large as Blagojevich proposed, and the details reflected GOP interests.

In education, for example, the budget boosts the state’s per-pupil spending guarantee by $154, not the $250 hike the governor wanted for the program targeted at poorer school districts. But the more modest hike freed additional dollars for specific programs such as special 
education and transportation, which benefit wealthier school districts, many in Republican areas.

Similarly, funding for higher education was not cut as Blagojevich requested, nor were three prisons and a mental health center closed, largely because most of the targeted facilities, like most state univer-sities, are represented by Republicans, whose votes were needed to pass the overtime budget.

The governor fared no better on a host of other budget issues. The business tax hikes he wanted were scaled back, and lawmakers spared such programs as tourism promotion and open land preservation from his axe. Legislators reined in the administration’s authority to raid earmarked funds for general operating expenses and imposed tighter controls on its ability to sell bonds. Lawmakers also voted themselves a greater oversight role in facility closing, agency rule-making and contracting decisions.

Most significantly, however, Madigan and GOP leaders required Blagojevich to sign more than four dozen “memorandums of understanding,” unprecedented statements spelling out certain details of the budget agreement. While the governor’s aides tried to downplay the documents, in fact they are tangible evidence of the deep distrust between Madigan and Blagojevich.

In short, the state chairman of the Democratic Party has concluded that the Democratic governor cannot be trusted to keep his commitments, that his word is no good. That certainly can’t bode well for Democrats — and that prospect should provide a break in the clouds for Republicans. 


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

Illinois Issues, September 2004

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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