Illinois Governor Plays All the Angles – and Wins Print
Commentary/Politics - Illinois Politics
Tuesday, 08 July 2003 18:00
After months of publicly jabbing the General Assembly for its hidebound ways, Governor Rod Blagojevich is now aiming his sharp political elbows at his fellow constitutional officers, including his most likely re-election rival.

Four weeks after the final state budget passed, and just one day before the new fiscal year was set to begin, the governor summoned all statewide elected officials – the lieutenant governor, attorney general, secretary of state, comptroller, and treasurer – and dropped a bomb. He wanted them to cut 7.5 percent from their operating budgets, and he wanted it done in two days.

Their public reaction was mostly predictable. Lieutenant Governor Pat Quinn announced he had jumped right on board. He’d already cut his budget way more than 7.5 percent, so he was exempt.

Comptroller Dan Hynes enthusiastically agreed. Hynes is a candidate for the U.S. Senate and has spent the past few months doing everything possible to stay on Governor Blagojevich’s good side.

A Hynes-Blagojevich spat might nudge the governor toward his reliable campaign contributor, U.S. Senate candidate Blair Hull. Hull has so much cash and has spread it around so thick that not many pols with statewide ambition are willing to draw his ire, including the governor. For Hynes, victory next spring partially depends on complete and absolute gubernatorial neutrality, which necessitates the occasional groveling.

Secretary of State Jesse White publicly objected to the governor’s demand. White has never apologized for increasing his budget. His number-one campaign issue in 1998 was the abysmally long lines at driver-services facilities. More money to enhance customer service is no sin in White’s eyes.

Attorney General Lisa Madigan showed she learned some lessons from her father, the Illinois House Speaker. Speaker Madigan likes to quietly figure the angles before he makes a play, and Attorney General Madigan did the same.

Treasurer Judy Baar Topinka also laid low. An immediate public fight over budget cuts with the person she hopes to defeat in ’06 wouldn’t be a good idea for the celebrated penny-pincher. Plus, she’s the only Republican in the bunch. She needed allies to avoid appearing politically obstructive.

Topinka mostly needed Attorney General Madigan. Madigan’s father could backstop the constitutionals in the House and maybe even in the Senate, with Topinka supplying enough Republican votes to override any reductions Blagojevich might make. Attorney General Madigan and Blagojevich had a few run-ins this year, with Madigan believing that the guv was out to undercut her authority, so this was not a terribly difficult sell.

The three confronted G-Rod and said they’d accept only a 3-percent cut. After some tense negotiation, the governor reportedly appeared compliant.

Topinka, White, and Madigan all believed they had a deal when the meeting ended. But a few minutes later, a call came from the governor’s office. No deal. They’d have to cut 5 percent.

Statewide officers are accustomed to deference from governors. They have clear, constitutionally mandated duties. They were all elected independently, so they are accountable to the voters for their actions.

But Blagojevich was treating them like they were the Chicago city clerk – politically dependent upon and bureaucratically insignificant to the mayor. This was too much.

Blagojevich decreed that Madigan alone could stay at the 3-percent level, all but dashing Topinka’s override hopes – and with it all of her negotiating strength.

What we had here was another one of those politically popular hardball plays at which Blago has excelled since taking office. Who doesn’t want politicians to cut their budgets?

Topinka, the best hope the Republicans have of defeating Blago in 2006, is now in the awkward position of complaining about budget cuts. And she can’t even claim the governor’s motives were political because Democrat White’s budget will be slashed as much as hers.

Plus, giving the statewide officers time to cut their budgets provided the governor with a convenient excuse for why he hadn’t yet bothered to sign most of the budget, even though the new fiscal year began last Tuesday.

The battle was also engaged while the media was focused on Blagojevich’s massive new tax and fee hikes. So it might even subtly deflect some of the public’s ire away from the governor and onto those bad ol’ statewide officers who refuse to trim their fat.

In other words, as the governor repeats endlessly, he’s the new way, they’re the old way.

Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter. He can be reached at (http://www.capitolfax.com).
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