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Memorable farewell by the Iron Horse of Illinois politics


Politics is the only sport for grownups, Gov. James R. Thompson observed in his 14th and final State of the State address last month, so perhaps it's not too farfetched to be reminded by the governor's talk of a notable goodbye of more than half a century ago. On July 4, 1939, Lou Gehrig, the "Pride of the Yankees," bid adieu to the baseball world he thrilled for so long in a tearful ceremony at Yankee Stadium. "Today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth," said Gehrig, who became known as the Iron Horse for the incredible 2,130 successive games he played over a 14-year span.

Thompson, too, is preparing to hang up his spikes after an unprecedented 14 years as the state's chief executive. While the governor took 74 minutes and Gehrig far less than 74 seconds both commemorated remarkable careers.

Thompson's address was more style than substance, sniffed some critics, a perception that while accurate detracted not one whit from his performance. Even the governor conceded the point, saying the usual State of the State initiatives would be unveiled in his March Budget Address to underscore the need to tie new programs to new funding. Nor should Build Illinois-type extravaganzas be expected then, given Thompson's repeated warnings about how tight the fiscal 1991 budget will be. And perhaps that's only fitting. As the governor recognized, in frequent, off-the-cuff asides directed at his would-be successors, Jim Edgar and Neil F. Hartigan, the mantle of leadership is being passed, and to one of them will fall the task of fashioning the programs to carry Illinois forward in the new decade.

Instead, Thompson dwelled long on the state's gains since 1977, noting correctly that most came only in partnership with the legislature, in stark contrast to his predecessor's confrontational style. Although the governor stuck up for his Commerce and Community Affairs Department and parried criticism of his overseas trade missions, the address was hardly "very defensive," as House Speaker Michael J. Madigan (D-30, Chicago) suggested.

More than any of his previous Thompson's 1990 address provided sharp insights into the personal style of perhaps the most successful politician in state history. At times sounding like Big Jim at a county fair, at others, like a Dutch uncle counseling a favorite nephew, Thompson slipped into the folksy speaking manner, marked by warmth and humor, that has made him such a formidable presence on the campaign trail all these years.

But the governor is not running, and so, eschewing a candidate's sugar-coated words and cautious phrases, he could speak with candor and bluntness. While sketching a few modest goals for the coming session, he emphasized the intangible qualities that will be demanded of lawmakers and citizens alike if Illinois is to meet the challenges of the dawning decade.

"The problems we will face in the '90s, let's serve notice here and now, won't lend themselves to the quick fix," Thompson said. Instead, lawmakers must have "the guts, the political will, the moxie, the muscle'' to make the tough decisions needed to handle vexing issues like protecting the environment, achieving educational reform and equitable school financing, providing affordable, available health care throughout the state, and preserving its transportation network.

Consider, for example, the governor's exhortations on garbage: "We either act on our mounting garbage problems now or choke on it later. Now let's talk reality here. You and I are gonna have to have the guts, the political will, the muscle to override the concerns of some that they don't want to deal, in any way, with garbage, except to take it out of their house and put it on the curb and say goodbye.

"Well, they're not gonna do that much longer. Yes, nobody wants to live next to a landfill or a transfer station or an incinerator. Well, how about if we passed a law

4/February 1990/Illinois Issues

that said, 'OK, folks, you don't have to. We've got it all taken care of. From now on, everybody buries his garbage in his own backyard. Nobody else's, just your own garbage, in your own backyard. That way you won't be bothered by any of your neighbor's stuff.'

"How long would we get away with that? But how long are we gonna get away with opening the kitchen door, putting out the garbage, opening the kitchen door the next morning, seeing the garbage is gone, and saying, 'Isn't that terrific,' in the meantime beefing about the cost of picking up the garbage?

"Not much longer. . . . It's gonna take muscle, and will, money; it's gonna take some tough political decisions; it may require taking control of siting back from local government, putting it here in Springfield. I hope you're with me on this, because if you're not, all the political decisions in the world at the local level are someday not gonna let the garbage go away and when they open the back door, it's gonna be sitting there."

Or talking turkey on hazardous waste: "What's the point of having lock-proof bottles in our medicine cabinets and warning labels and hiding the dangerous stuff inside the house if the air and the land and the water is no good? You gonna put up warning labels on every faucet, before we take every breath, before we walk a foot on the soils of Illinois? Or are we gonna get that stuff out of it?"

Or on education financing and reform: "We can compromise on a fair method of distributing state dollars to our schools now, or we can have some federal judge across town say, 'Folks, here is the plan, you provide the money. Don't like the plan? Too bad. You had your chance. . . . Now you're in my courtroom. I'm the boss .....'

"Parents are the real key to reform, not just money.... Do they care about what their kids are learning in the classroom? Some people spend more time taking care of their lawns than they do taking care of their children's education. Well, I guess grass grows easier than kids."

No, it was not your typical State of the State address. But in its plain-speaking tone and its common-sense advice, it was a memorable farewell from the Iron Horse of Illinois politics.

Charles N. Wheeler III is a correspondent in the Springfield Bureau of the Chicago Sun-Times.

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