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GOP leadership in the '90s: a primary challenge

Republican Jim Edgar for governor

Photo courtsey State Journal-Register

Republican Steve Baer for governor

It was supposed to be simple. On automobiles in Springfield, where political paraphernalia serve as an enduring badge of party loyalty or of employment Gov. James R. Thompson's "Leadership into the '90s" placards were replaced during the summer by "Edgar for Governor" bumper stickers. As soon as Thompson decided not to seek a fifth term, Secy. of State Jim Edgar became the Republican party's front-running gubernatorial candidate and heir apparent. Thus it appeared that a pragmatic, centrist leader in Thompson's mold would steer the Illinois GOP into the 1990s.

Things still are likely to work out that way: The numbers are with the GOP establishment. But Edgar faces a vigorous challenge from the right in the March 20 gubernatorial primary. The overt issue is taxes.

After feuding with Thompson and the GOP establishment for several years, Steven Baer of suburban Chicago mounted his challenge to Edgar in the name of conservative Republican principles. Edgar, at the same time, advances his claim as a mainstream Republican. The March 20 contest is being fought largely on ideological ground, and it has led to public discord over the premises behind Edgar's candidacy and, by extension, Thompson's leadership of state and party.

In order to run, Baer stepped down as executive director of the United Republican Fund (URF) of Illinois, once a party fundraising arm, now self-styled guardians of GOP principles. By championing ideological causes, Baer is credited with its growth from a $100,000 budget in 1984 to $1 million in 1988. His challenge to Edgar is not his first foray into GOP primary politics. Baer and the URF are best known, perhaps, for the "Just Say No to Taxes" campaign that embarrassed Thompson with his proposals for a 40 percent hike in the state income tax in 1987 and 1988. Not content with lobbying the General Assembly, the URF in 1988 backed a conservative GOP primary challenger to state Rep. James Kirkland (R-66, Elgin) and threatened other lawmakers with similar retaliation if they supported Thompson's fiscal policy.

In a not-so-veiled response to URF tactics, Thompson and the legislative leadership responded with a bill in effect requiring groups using the name "Republican" or "Democrat" to register with the appropriate state central committee. The URF filed suit a year ago to block the legislation, and the lawsuit is pending in Sangamon County Circuit Court.

So Baer's challenge from the right has implications not only for state government but also to the Illinois Republican party. Edgar, who came up through the ranks of legislative staff and the state House of Representatives, is not likely to make sweeping changes in the party. If anything, he'll work with it more closely than Thompson, who was a U.S. attorney and a relative outsider when first elected in 1976. Baer promises not only to change the party but also to give it a new clarity of purpose. That prospect, for obvious reasons, tends to afflict GOP insiders with stomach cramps.

As soon as Baer announced in December, GOP State Chairman Al Jourdan came to Edgar's defense. So did National Chairman Lee Atwater. Said Jourdan: "Jim Edgar has the unanimous endorsement of the Illinois Republican State Central Committee and the Illinois Republican County Chairmen's As-

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sociation. He has been an outstanding public official and a highly respected leader of our party. ... I respect him for not changing long-held positions merely to appease a fringe group in order to avoid a primary challenge." Atwater later endorsed Edgar, saying in so many words that Edgar put his marker out for President George Bush in 1988 and Bush would gladly return the favor.

One big difference between Edgar and his challenger is that Edgar is a GOP insider and Baer is not. Ask Edgar what he'd do differently with the Republican party if elected, and he says - in essence not very much. Ask Baer what he'd do differently, and he responds with a framework for structural and ideological change.

On the GOP, Edgar said: ''I think any time you see a change in governors. . . you'll see a change in the party apparatus because the party does reflect that present governor. With Jim Edgar as governor, there'll be a different tone to the party than there was under Jim Thompson. I'm not saying it was bad under Jim Thompson and it'll be better under Jim Edgar; it'll be different, just as the administration will be different."

Said Baer: "Well, the state central committee itself deserves a more prominent role in the Republican party because [the committeemen] are the party, not necessarily the constitutional officers. The party in Illinois ought to be pacing the politicians philosophically in talking about what the party stands for.

"Look at the state platform in 1988: It was gobbledygook because of the fear of offending a Republican governor who was calling for a 40 percent tax increase. When the party faithful get mush, it saps their enthusiasm because they want to see a party that stands for the conservative Republican principles that underly the Republican national platform."

The Edgar-Baer contest, of course, is driven by state taxes. When Illinois House Speaker Michael J. Madigan (D-30, Chicago) and Senate President Philip J. Rock (D-8, Oak Park) came out for a temporary income tax hike last year to aid education and local governments, Baer had less to say about it than he did about Thompson's 1987 and 1988 proposals. But now that Edgar supports extension of the 1989 temporary tax, Baer is fighting Edgar.

To the Republican party apparatchiki, and to its high officeholders, other matters are more important. One is party loyalty.

The Illinois Republican party is made up of a 22-member state central committee, a state chairman and a small professional staff. Like many state party organizations, it has evolved into an ancillary operation that provides certain services such as the maintenance of voter registration and mailing lists and coordinates activities among the candidates, the legislative campaign committees and such national entities as presidential campaigns and the Republican National Committee. With its statutory function of electing precinct, ward and township committeemen and its consequent relationship with the county central committees, the state party has a role that is largely one of fostering communication. It has an annual operating budget of $600,000 to $800,000, which grows to $4 million or so in election years. Recent gubernatorial and senatorial campaigns in states the size of Illinois run to $8 million, so the state parties tend to facilitate activities rather than direct the candidates. The Illinois GOP is no exception.

Like governors in other states who attained the office during the 1970s, Thompson built his own organization and raised his own money. Especially in his early campaigns, he was seen as a media candidate rather than one who relied on his party organization. Looking back now, Thompson says his relationship with his party grew closer over the years: "I didn't come from a background in politics, so maybe [the relationship] was more tentative in the beginnning. ... I think, in many ways, it mirrors my relationship with the legislative leaders, to whom I've grown very close over the course of the last 13 years."

Especially after his reelection by a narrow margin in 1982, by some accounts, Thompson became a believer in a precinct organization and lent his hand to a variety of party-building activities. Even before then, he came to value the personal matrix of loyalty, support, markers put out and markers called in that shapes party politics as much as it does the legislative process. At times, inevitably, the two intertwined. Recalls Thompson: "I can remember when Al Jourdan stepped out and said, 'The governor's right: We need a tax increase.' He came down to Springfield to help me achieve it when that was not a very popular thing in my party, and I appreciate that leadership from within the ranks of the Republican party."

Opposition to tax increases is a basic tenet of the Republican party. But Illinois party leaders say the demands of governing take precedence. So, obviously, does loyalty to a successful governor who has kept the office in GOP hands for nearly 14 years.

Like governors in other states who attained the office during the 1970s, Thompson built his own organization and raised his own money

As Thompson's heir apparent, Edgar enjoys support now similar to what Jourdan gave Thompson in 1988. Stu Piper, executive director of the state central committee, says the demands of governing mean that Republican governors have to embrace the tax issues even as President Bush and the national GOP make no-new-tax pledges. "The whole tax issue is obviously very controversial, but we've had cutbacks in federal programs, and there are still obvious problems in deficit reduction," Piper said. "As programs are forced down to the state level, the states decide what's important. The governors determine what the programs are and make recommendations to the legislatures. The legislature passes the spending levels."

Also giving Edgar a pass on the tax issue is Atwater, a key architect of Bush's read-my-lips tax policy. "I said taxes are always the last resort for Republicans," Atwater said recently

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in Peoria. "I have not followed it closely, but I'll guarantee you if Jim Edgar thinks it needs to be extended, it's because he's a very thoughtful guy and has calculated that it is the last and only resort."

To Baer, it is precisely this willingness to embrace taxes that has hurt the Republican party. "We have lost control of both the state House and the state Senate," he said in his announcement speech. "And unless our party can retain the office of governor in the election next fall, the Democrats will have total control over the 1991 congressional and legislative redistricting and Illinois will be gerrymandered into a one-party state. Ladies and gentlemen, that is exactly what will happen if the Republican nominee for governor rejects the winning Republican national platform position against tax increases and endorses a permanent increase in the Illinois income tax."

The GOP regulars, to borrow a term from the Cook County Democratic party, point to more pragmatic harbingers of possible victory in November, including polls that show Edgar with a 70 percent approval rate and a 10-point lead over Democratic front-runner, Atty. Gen. Neil F. Hartigan.

Piper says Baer's concern with ideology has hurt the party in Illinois, primarily by siphoning fundraising dollars away from Illinois to out-of-state conservative causes. Baer counters by pointing to the URF's in-state contributions and stressing ideology. "I am not interested in turf at all," Baer said. "One thing I would like to see as governor is a truly united Republican party in Illinois but not at the expense of principle."

The regulars resent Baer's claim to have a lock on principles, suspecting him of exploiting "hot-button" issues to bring dollars into URF rather than party coffers. To them, the battle is not the least bit ideological. "We have a diversity of values within the Republican organization," Piper said. "I think over a long period of time, our problem [with Baer and the URF] has been a question of tactics, responsible political discourse, reasonableness and deception of facts concerning the role of party organizations."

For someone like Piper, with the operations of a state party and welfare of 102 county GOP central committees to keep in mind, the prospect of abandoning Edgar in order to go on an ideological crusade is worse than quixotic. It would be disloyal both to Edgar and to the rank-and-file Republicans whom Piper believes can be best served by nominating an insider who practices the personal, pragmatic politics of the Thompson years. Piper said: "If you can have the governor come to your county Lincoln Day dinner or have the governor's representative answer your phone calls, the Republican leader is perceived as someone who can work with the elected officials and get a job done. He can focus attention on why you want to build a bridge, open a prison or put in a state park, and that means a lot to the party."

Baer, who promises a "no-tax" conservative GOP leadership in the '90s, and Edgar, who represents a continuation of Thompson's pragmatic leadership, have the same goal: to hold onto the governor's office. Republicans will decide March 20 which candidate they believe has the best chance of doing just that in the November general election.

Pete EIIertsen is a political columnist for The State Journal-Register.

James R. Thompson's legacy to the Grand Old Party

When Gov. James R. Thompson speaks of the legacy he hopes to leave the Republican party, he speaks in terms of government, not politics: "I would like to see our party take a progressive role in discussing and implementing issues like state support for education, the maintenance of a good business climate, a strong stand for a clean environment and attempting to solve some of the nagging structural problems that we, like every other state, have.

"For example, in the area of education, should we swap greater numbers of state income tax dollars for property tax dollars? What steps can we take as a state to reduce the disparities in funding between rich and poor school districts?

"In the environment, can we put together a coordinated program of recycling and reuse? Can we offer incentives to produce a different ethic in how we live to prevent garbage and waste from occurring in the first place? The broad questions of the economy, the environment and the business climate our global competitiveness I think are the three most important things we face in the state going into the next century, and I'd like to see the Republican party in Illinois be a progressive force for solutions in this area." Thompson's, in short, is an activist view of government.

When he spoke with this reporter at the end of November, over a car telephone, he was on a statewide "fly-around" to publicize a state Department of Alcohol and Substance Abuse (DASA) educational program. It wasn't an atypical day's work for a governor who loves the campaign trail. In many ways, the DASA program is typical as well. Part of a $44.3 million anti-drug package, it is funded by last year's 10-cent tobacco tax increase.

Gov. James R. Thompson

If Thompson believes in an activist government, he also believes in enacting the taxes to pay for its activities. In response to the inevitable talk of "tax-and-spend Republicans," he says state spending has declined in relation to per capita income and points to what he sees as a progressive tradition of the Republican party. "Well, gosh, it sounds an awful lot, at least to me, like what Abraham Lincoln told us over a hundred years ago," he said. "He talked a lot about the importance of education. Lincoln talked about being competitive in a global ecoomy, even back in the 1830s, when he said Illinois must trade with the world. Lincoln was a strong labor president, if you'll read his speeches and follow his actions. The most vigorous president in the nation's history on the issue of the enviroment was a Republican, Theodore Roosevelt. Republicans always lay claim to wanting a strong climate for commerce and business. I think it's within the traditions of our party: It goes back to its very roots."

Pete Ellertsen

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