Retrospective Part 2: Three decades of public affairs journalism
When the first edition of Illinois Issues came off the presses in January 1975, major changes in state governance were under way. Officials were busy meeting the requirements of the 1970 state Constitution, which was designed by its framers to pull Illinois into the modern era. The first state comptroller had been sworn in, and the first auditor general. The new State Board of Elections had just supervised its first campaign season. The new State Board of Education was in place. And the amending provision of the Constitution had had its first test run: Voters declined to overturn the governor's amendatory veto powers. Yet over the years that followed, Illinoisans continued to wrestle with the policy and political changes wrought by the new Constitution and those required by the courts, the voters and the state's evolving lineup of elected officials. Any assessment of these changes depends on perspective. But this much is certain: Illinois government and politics have changed in the past three decades. Illinois Issues is about to enter its fourth decade of publication, and next year we'll celebrate that achievement with a look forward. In the final months of this year, we?ll take a look back at where we've been.
Illinois’ tradition of political spoils drew scrutiny from the U.S. Supreme Court over the past three decades.
In 1976, the nation’s high court ruled in Elrod v. Burns that making party allegiance, including work for candidates and money contributions, a condition of employment was impermissible because it could cause unwanted association or inhibit desired association. Party affiliation, the justices decided, may be required as a condition of government employment only at policymaking levels.
In 1990, in Rutan et al v. Republican Party of Illinois et al, the court called denial of promotion or transfer, failure to recall after layoff and rejection of initial hire “deprivations less harsh than dismissal that nevertheless press state employees and applicants to conform their beliefs and associations to some state-selected orthodoxy.”
Critics saw the Rutan decision in particular as threatening the democratic process. The court observed that political parties were managing to survive and noted “the declining influence of election workers when compared to money-intensive campaigning, such as the distribution of form letters and advertising.”
Contrary to the impression the rest of the country sometimes has, political patronage employment was not invented in Illinois. The spoils system was developed to a fine art there though, and has thrived longer than in most places. So it was fitting that the U.S. Supreme Court’s constitutional examination of the practice of giving government jobs to political helpers should have originated in Cook County. In one of the more hazily reasoned decisions of its last term, the court found that the use of political patronage to fill nonpolicymaking public jobs violated the First Amendment rights of those payrollers who had the misfortune of actively supporting the
candidate who lost. Every American’s freedoms of political belief and association are protected equally by the Constitution, and that includes partisan soldiers of fortune, declared Justice William J. Brennan Jr. for the 5-to-3 majority.
Tom Littlewood, October 1976
An immediate effect was the issuance by Gov. Thompson on July 17 of Executive Order No. 1 (1990), strictly implementing the principles embodied in Rutan. About the past it says, “It has been the policy and practice of this administration to fill positions in the state only with individuals who are qualified for their positions.” Indeed, ecommendations to the governor’s office have been made from lists of those qualified under civil service regulations, but apparently the attitude has been, “All other things being equal, hire the Republican.” Now the record of past party affiliation, activity and voting is not to be considered. The order does not prohibit ecommendations for those seeking employment by party officials, but these must deal strictly with the candidate’s qualifications for the job and not with party loyalty.
Anyone who lives in Springfield will have to wonder whether job dispensers will be able to ignore the known party affiliation of the recommenders — but at least the Republicans have stopped attaching application forms for party membership to job application forms.
F. Mark Siebert, August/September 1990
In 1980, voters approved an amendment to the Illinois Constitution abolishing multimember districts in the House, along with the system of electing their representatives through cumulative voting. Under the old system, the minority party in each House district was able to elect one of the three representatives from that district. Republican-leaning districts could send one Democrat to Springfield. Democrat-leaning districts could send one Republican.
Given “the good government,” anti-party position of Patrick Quinn’s Coalition for Political Honesty and other reform groups supporting the Cutback Amendment, it is ironic that their amendment may actually strengthen the parties and undercut support for “good government” positions.
It could be argued, of course, that the minority representatives from each party tend to cancel out each other’s vote, but there can be no doubt that they do broaden the range of positions within their respective parties and, perhaps, influence party policy by moving it closer to the middle range of political opinion. Without minority party members, partisan polarization would be intensified, which, it could be said, might encourage the clarification of controversial issues. The question for voters is whether the presence of moderates and independents in both parties improves or diminishes the effectiveness of the House.
Robert B. Schaller, November 1980
A 1990 law, supported by minority lawmakers and Republicans, carved 15 subdistricts out of Cook County for the purpose of electing circuit judges. The region also was divided into five appellate subdistricts. Though some circuit and appellate judges are still elected at-large in Cook County, supporters argued that enabling candidates to run from smaller districts would encourage partisan, gender and racial diversity on the bench.
When Llwellyn Greene-Thapedi, former president of the black lawyers’ Cook County Bar Association, went before the Chicago Bar Association’s (CBA) judicial evaluation committee in 1987, she recalls the first words spoken in the room were about her past activism on behalf of minorities.
Greene-Thapedi, who had been in the leadership of the black bar association for several years, was trying to become an associate judge. These judges are selected by the sitting circuit judges of Cook County from a bar-endorsed list of candidates. Greene-Thapedi did not get the CBA endorsement, and she recalls that the committee never even asked about her legal qualifications. “When I think about the questions put to me, they were not about my abilities as a judge,” Greene-Thapedi says now. “They had to do with articles I’d written and statements I’d made on behalf of the Cook County Bar Association to the effect that there must be more blacks on the judiciary.”
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While blacks and Hispanics and some women are celebrating what they view as new access to the judiciary, proponents of merit selection remain vehemently opposed to the new law. Jeffrey Gilbert, president of the Chicago Council of Lawyers (CCL), called the law “the judicial patronage act” in a point-of-view column written for the Chicago Tribune. The CCL put together a coalition for merit selection called Citizens for Court Reform that urged Gov. James R. Thompson not to sign the bill into law.
Those who have called for merit selection in the past are making dire predictions about the effect of the new law. Said the court reform coalition’s director, Donna Schiller, “Every lawyer in the subdistricts will be responsible for giving [campaign] money to the elected judge. It just gives me nightmares.” Said Gilbert, “I still feel that in smaller districts, the weight of the delivered vote will be all the heavier. It’s already the case that few people vote for judge as compared to races at the top of the ticket. People who vote for judge are voting the party recommendation. They are the ones holding the precinct captain’s list.”
Gilbert believes the passage of the subdistricting bill has put off “for a generation” any chance of merit selection becoming a reality in Illinois.
Nina Burleigh, February 1990
The richness of Illinois’ political narrative is rooted in its roster of players. This was true over the past three decades as a shifting cast of characters stepped into the spotlight. Here, from our pages, are a few of the early reviews.
Mrs. Schlafly calls American women, without the ERA, “the luckiest and most privileged in the world. It is a wonderful right that a wife be provided with a home by her husband. There are always going to be women,” she said, “who can sweet-talk their husbands into doing nice things for them. But they would have no legal rights [to support] under the ERA.”
William McFadin, March 1975
His incomparable managerial experience, determination, and an awareness of the importance of image in politics that has always been ahead of his time almost guarantee that Don Rumsfeld won’t quietly fade away.
Tom Littlewood, June 1977
Race was key in this campaign — for it would not be difficult to argue that if Harold Washington were white he would not have entered let alone won the 1983 Chicago Democratic mayoral primary.
Paul M. Green, April 1983
A profoundly conservative jurist from downstate Pekin, he is the embodiment of what populists and “small-d” democrats hate about the judiciary — aloof, often arrogant and virtually unaccountable.
Toby Eckert, March 1995
Illinois Issues, October 2004