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Last Year Brought Big Changes in Illinois Politics PDF Print E-mail
Commentary/Politics - Illinois Politics
Tuesday, 06 January 2004 18:00
Last year was one of transition for Illinois’ political leadership. The year began with Republican Governor George Ryan leaving office after just four years in office – a term constantly overshadowed by allegations of corruption while he was secretary of state.

The year ended with federal corruption and racketeering indictments of that same George Ryan, while his chief prosecutor, U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, took a side job in Washington, D.C., to investigate who in the White House blew the cover of a CIA agent (and all the undercover agents who worked with her at a CIA-created “front company”).

Rod Blagojevich was sworn in as our new governor – the first Democrat to hold that job in 26 years – and promised to “hit the ground running.” But by the end of the year he had not yet successfully filled all of his cabinet posts. And for the first time since the 1930s, several pieces of legislation became law because the governor forgot to take action on them by the constitutionally mandated deadline. Oops.

The governor also promised to usher in a new era for Illinois, and pledged an end to corruption and the power of the vested interests. Blagojevich forced a new and relatively tough ethics law through the General Assembly. But many of the governor’s most trusted advisors are lobbyists and old-time political insiders. Blagojevich also did his best to push through consumer rate hikes for two utility companies (SBC and Commonwealth Edison), and his Illinois Commerce Commission is now completely dominated by pro-utility commissioners.

The new governor persistently hammered away at his predecessor’s free-spending ways, but Blagojevich increased General Revenue spending by a billion dollars last spring and the state’s debt has way more than doubled since he took the oath of office. Meanwhile, his overly optimistic state-revenue projections are not holding up in the real world.

Two new legislative leaders were elected this year. Tom Cross took over the helm of the House Republican caucus from longtime House GOP Leader Lee Daniels. Frank Watson replaced Senate Republican grand Pooh Bah Pate Philip.

Both Cross and Watson have run their offices differently than their predecessors, and the two men are also vastly dissimilar from each other.

Representative Cross was elected after a scandal engulfed Daniels involving the alleged use of state workers on political campaigns. Cross moved quickly to completely separate his office’s state duties from its political activities. He also took the party leadership’s collective vice grip off his members’ necks. For years, House GOP members were explicitly ordered to vote certain ways on various pieces of legislation. No other legislative caucus had tighter restrictions than the House Republicans. Under Cross’ new leadership, those days are gone.

Senate President Pate Philip rarely wanted anything for his upscale DuPage County district, which made it difficult to do much political horsetrading with the guy. In the end, though, Pate would usually sit down and work something out, or he’d outright kill any proposal he really didn’t like.

Philip’s replacement, Senate Republican Leader Frank Watson, represents a working-class district that covets as much government funding as it can get. That difference should have made Watson more amenable to deals last spring, but he refused to negotiate and tried to stop just about every major Democratic initiative that came down the pike. He lost almost every battle, leaving some to speculate that he was outfoxed by the new governor.

But if Blagojevich’s job approval ratings continue to plummet, Watson, and the Senate Republicans who followed him, could be seen as the real heroes in Springfield.

Cross, on the other hand, worked closely with Blagojevich on just about every major legislative issue that came up last spring. Watson seemed constantly irked with Cross’ allegedly traitorous behavior, but Cross continually pointed to all the benefits his negotiations were bringing to his members’ districts, and he refused to change course. Meanwhile, the new lieutenant governor, consumer activist Pat Quinn, has avoided stepping on his tongue too often (a fate almost universally predicted for the outspoken gadfly). The new attorney general, Lisa Madigan, has grown into the job and has shown that she isn’t merely a pawn of her father, powerful House Speaker Michael Madigan (as so many claimed she would be).

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