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Lost Opportunities: An Inability to Work Together Has Stymied Democratic Attempts to Create Change

 

On January 8, 2007, Gov. Rod Blagojevich stood in a packed Springfield convention center before a frenzied crowd of supporters celebrating his second inaugural and surveyed what must have looked like a cloudless political horizon.

Two months earlier, he had won his second term as governor, something no Democrat had done in Illinois in more than 40 years. It seemed the voters had not only validated the activist-progressive policies of his first term but also had given him the tools to expand upon them: His party had come out of the election holding every lever of state governmental power (all six statewide offices, plus widened majorities in both chambers of the General Assembly) for the first time since before World War II.

“I read the election as a mandate for action,” Blagojevich said in an 18-minute inauguration speech centered on an ambitious plan to create a universal health care system in Illinois that would inspire the nation. “I intend to act.”

The ensuing year saw action, all right, but certainly not the kind Blagojevich had predicted. Long-cherished Democratic goals that in theory should have been easily realized now — fundamental school funding reform, new infrastructure and his own universal health care initiative — became bogged down in the worst intraparty political war in modern memory.

Stress lines that had long been growing between top Democrats broke wide open in 2007, as Blagojevich’s emboldened second-term policy ambitions collided with the desire of others in his party to put on the brakes. He dragged lawmakers back to Springfield in special sessions again and again in failed attempts to force his legislative agenda into law. 

For much of the year, he and his all-Democratic power structure couldn’t even come together on a new state budget, let alone usher in the “activist government” that Blagojevich had promised. All indications are that this year will see more of the same.

“You’ve been in charge since 2003. You run everything in this state — you love to tell us that,” House Minority Leader Tom Cross, an Oswego Republican, pointed out during a gloating floor speech in January, after listening to one frustrated Democratic lawmaker after another excoriate Blagojevich. “[But] when you look at your track record since 2003, there’s not a lot to brag about. Those of you that run this state, you’re running it into the ground.”

How Illinois’ Democratic juggernaut went from irresistible force to immovable object is a story that’s partly about individual personalities — particularly those of Blagojevich, who after five years as governor still plays the role of brash young outsider, and his chief nemesis, Rep. Michael Madigan of Chicago, the longtime House speaker and chairman of the state Democratic Party. Their ongoing blood feud is arguably the wrench that stopped everything.

As Kent Redfield, a political scientist at the University of Illinois at Springfield, puts it: “One is used to running the state, and the other would like to.”

But it’s also a story about the personality of a party. It could be that in the end, Democrats in the state simply aren’t well-suited to the kind of power they found themselves holding in January 2007. “The Illinois Democratic Party traditionally has always been very pragmatic. ... There’s not what you’d call a ‘Democratic vision,’” Redfield says.

Blagojevich has long maintained that the heart of the conflict has been the resistance of old-guard party leaders to the Democratic vision of universal health care and other sweeping goals he’s pursued.
“I have fewer friends today than I had three years ago because you’re going to ruffle feathers,” Blagojevich said in a March 2006 interview with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “You’re going to upset some interests that kind of expected that there was a certain way of doing things. We’ve basically said, ‘We’re going to change those things.’”

Others say the problem isn’t noble ends but unreasonable means. They point to Blagojevich’s penchant for unilaterally unveiling major new policy initiatives, with little warning even to lawmakers of his own party, and then vilifying anyone who questions the cost or viability of his plans.

“If he would only turn around and work with us, we could actually make him a good governor,” Rep. Lou Lang, a Skokie Democrat, said in an angry House floor speech in January, during the latest of many policy showdowns with Blagojevich. “But he has been unwilling to do that.”
In 1995 and 1996, when the GOP briefly held both the governor’s office and legislative majorities in the House and Senate, unified Republicans came in with an ideologically driven to-do list and quickly proceeded to do it. Tax caps, welfare reform and other longstanding Republican goals were rammed into law, one after another, as Democrats watched helplessly.

After all the legislative tire-spinning of 2007, it’s easy to forget that Democrats did have their own successful agenda-ramming period, shortly after Blagojevich began his first term in 2003. Despite the immediately obvious conflicts between the brash young Democratic governor and the old-guard Democrats who ran the General Assembly, they managed to come together enough in those first few years to hike the state’s minimum wage, increase education funding and institute a major new children’s health care program.

“You elected me four years ago to change things and focus our state government on the needs of people,” Blagojevich boasted to supporters during his second inaugural speech at Springfield’s Prairie Capital Convention Center. “We got things done.”

But having approved the minimum-wage hike and other policies on which Democrats generally agreed, the party continued to control the levers of government with little consensus on how to use them.

That problem, Redfield argues, is a peculiarly Democratic one.

“If you contrast it to how the Republicans went about it in ‘95, ‘96, there was at least an attempt to have a common agenda,” Redfield says. It may be an intrinsically easier thing for Republicans to maintain that kind of intraparty consensus, he says, because GOP wish lists in Illinois tend to be ideological rather than financial. “Republicans tend not to want to spend money.”
Blagojevich, on the other hand, proposed a massive new $2.1 billion universal health care initiative, to be funded by a major new tax on the gross receipts of businesses. Among opponents was Madigan, who had already signaled that his focus in 2007 would be on getting the state’s finances in order. And Democratic Senate President Emil Jones Jr. of Chicago turned his attention to yet a third conflicting goal: education finance reform.

In a normal year, the impasse might be expected to lead to negotiation, compromise and — eventually — agreements that no one loved but everyone could live with.

But 2007 wasn’t a normal year. 

Blagojevich, already predisposed to view himself as a populist crusader fighting an entrenched political system, had been given what he considered a mandate to press that crusade. “I don’t believe you re-elected me to reverse course,” he said in his second inaugural speech.

The divergence of policy goals quickly degenerated into a highly personal and bitter political war, with Blagojevich and Madigan at its center. It engulfed not just the health care debate but virtually everything else in Springfield, including the nuts-and-bolts necessity of putting together a new state budget.

There are, of course, at least two sides to every argument. But it’s striking how many people involved in the various legislative debacles of the past year — from both parties and varied ideologies, backgrounds and alliances — place most of the blame squarely on Blagojevich.

The now-familiar complaints include allegations that the governor harbors an end-justifies-the-means attitude about policy, open scorn for the give-and-take of the legislative process and a refusal to bargain in good faith — or often, to bargain at all.

“He thinks we ought to simply rubber-stamp his proposals and not ask all these pesky questions,” says Rep. Gary Hannig, a Litchfield Democrat and Madigan’s top budget negotiator.

Redfield, like others who have watched the meltdown from the outside, gives Blagojevich credit for having a broader vision of government than many in Springfield but faults him for failing to unify his party around that vision.

“It’s a huge failure of leadership on the governor’s part,” Redfield says. He also cites the governor’s “inability to make some realistic accommodations” to others on his often-ambitious policy objectives.

Many of the governor’s fellow Democratic politicians are even blunter. “[He’s like] a 3-year-old who is just covered in chocolate ... running free in a linen store,” Rep. Jack Franks of Woodstock said in a January floor speech, “putting his hands on everything, just making the biggest mess that he possibly could and then leaving it for us to clean up.”

Franks was referring to Blagojevich’s handling of this year’s mass transit crisis, but critics say the charge could just as easily apply to last year’s health care showdown. Blagojevich began lobbying the public on his ambitious plan without laying any groundwork among legislative leaders. He offered a funding mechanism that many considered unrealistic and devastating to business. He publicly vilified those who raised concerns.

During a May hearing on the issue before the full House, he presented his plan not as an option but an ultimatum, threatening deep cuts to other areas if it wasn’t approved. “A do-nothing budget means pain to your constituents,” Blagojevich warned.

Madigan, in typical fashion, responded with quiet but deadly parliamentary maneuvers. Perhaps the most ironic moment to date in the Democrats’ reign came on May 10, when Madigan — one of the ruling party’s most partisan leaders — ushered in an almost unprecedented show of bipartisanship by engineering a humiliating 107-0 House vote against Blagojevich’s gross-receipts business tax plan, effectively killing the universal health care initiative.

From there, the poison flowed freely in both directions. Budget negotiations broke down, and all sides burrowed into their foxholes. Blagojevich repeatedly issued orders for lawmakers to return to Springfield in special sessions, some clearly timed for maximum inconvenience. Madigan began ignoring the orders. Blagojevich sued Madigan on constitutional grounds.

The legislature, facing an imminent shutdown of government, finally passed a budget over Blagojevich’s objections. Blagojevich subsequently used his amendatory veto to trim millions of dollars of what he called legislative “pork” from the budget bill, but in a manner clearly meant to punish House Democrats and Senate Republicans who had stood against him.
By the end of the calendar year, the all-powerful Democratic majority had barely managed to complete the routine work of government, let alone anything transformative. Education funding was finally increased but not overhauled. There is still no new statewide infrastructure program, despite vast consensus in both parties that it’s needed. Where the state’s fiscal picture stands depends on whom you talk to, but few are willing to declare it healthy.

Blagojevich, unable to win the universal health care program he wanted, did finally press into law a much more modest health care expansion initiative, using his amendatory veto powers. More than one critic has noted that it’s roughly what he might have ended up with — but with far less political bloodletting — had he been willing to negotiate with lawmakers on the issue in the first place.

“I don’t begrudge him for thinking big. But when it became clear that he didn’t have the votes ... a better way of looking at it would have been, ‘What is possible?’” says Hannig. “We perhaps could have gotten where he is anyway.”

The impasse is especially frustrating for Democratic leaders who were active during the 1990s, when Republicans held much of the power in Springfield and Democrats had to fight for every inch of policy they could get. To watch now as an unfettered Democratic majority trips over its own feet is beyond frustrating to some.

“This is calamitous in terms of what might have been done,” says Dawn Clark Netsch, the former legislator, state comptroller and 1994 Democratic gubernatorial nominee.

She laments especially the lack of consensus on restructuring the way education is funded, a long-sought goal of progressives in both parties that had always been stymied in the past by anti-tax conservative Republicans. Major education funding reform, Netsch says, “wasn’t going to be easy in any case, but it should have been possible, with all the offices being held by Democrats.”

Netsch, who teaches law at Northwestern University and is still active in Democratic politics, said some people have suggested that she should make specific recommendations to both sides for settling the continuing policy disputes in Springfield. But the problem, she says, is that the conflict, at its base, isn’t about policy.

“It’s become so personal. It’s this ego clash taking place,” Netsch says. “This advice is not likely to be taken, but these people have got to back off from their dug-in positions. ... There’s no end in sight at the moment.”

There’s been little indication in 2008 that ruling Democrats will yet put aside their differences and reshape Illinois in their party’s image.

In the first legislative test of the year, Chicago’s public transit system in January came within days of a fiscal meltdown as Blagojevich and the legislature argued over how to fix it. In the end, the solution — a regional tax increase —came with yet another Blagojevich amendatory veto to force yet another major initiative on lawmakers — free public transportation for seniors.

The response among House Demo- crats has been a proposed constitutional initiative to do away with the governor’s amendatory veto powers. “If the governor’s unable to [responsibly] play with his toys, we’re going to take his toys away from him,” Rep. John Fritchey, a Chicago Democrat, fumed on the House floor as he announced the measure.

Of course, the public generally doesn’t pay much attention to internal political squabbling, but it’s clear that the events and nonevents in Springfield in the past year have crossed that threshold. A poll published in January by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch found that the Democratic governor of this heavily Democratic state has a dismal 42 percent approval rating, and the Democrat-controlled legislature has an even worse 37 percent.

In hindsight, the words of Senate Republican Leader Frank Watson of Greenville, spoken shortly after the Democrats swamped his party in the November 2006 elections, seem prescient:

“[Democrats] certainly did well in this election, but they have to be careful. Democrats are known to do things that could swing the pendulum back the other way. Sometimes, they don’t seem to be able to help themselves.”

 

Stress lines that had long been growing between top Democrats broke wide open in 2007, as Blagojevich’s emboldened second-term policy ambitions collided with the desire of others in his party to put on the brakes.


Kevin McDermott is Springfield bureau chief for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Illinois Issues, March 2008

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