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Gov. Stratton's passage through political patronage

The following excerpt is from a forthcoming biography of Gov. William G. Stratton by David Kenney. Titled A Political Passage: The Career of Stratton of Illinois, the book will be published in May by Southern Illinois University Press, Carbondale. A Republican, Stratton took office at age 39 in 1953 and served two terms. It was a different era when governors served only one or two terms. Today the state has not gone through a change in administration in more than 13 years. Here is a glimpse of how the new Gov. Stratton dealt with some essentials. Copyright 1990 by the Board of Trustees of Southern Illinois University. Used with permission.

Immediately after becoming governor, Stratton had to deal with the matter of patronage in all its many forms. There was the expectation on the part of many Republicans that all Democratic jobholders would be discharged. If simply being a Democrat were not sufficient grounds, surely being politically active was. An April 30 memo to Ed Pree from Director Stanard of the Department of Agriculture illustrates that feeling. "We have an employee," Stanard wrote, "who was a candidate on the Democratic ticket in the recent election. Maude Myers [president of the Civil Service Commission] suggests . . . there is some question regarding the discharge of a Civil Service employee for this reason. What do you have to do to justify a discharge under Civil Service? Is a conviction and sentence for murder necessary?"1 Apparently on Stanard's scale of depravity, running as a Democrat ranked just above homicide.

Stratton was fully aware of the significance of patronage to his party, to the quality of service provided the public, and to his political future. He intended from the start to handle all patronage personally, as he had done when he was treasurer. In doing so he was assisted by Smokey Downey and Ed Pree, especially the latter. Pree recalls that "for the first three months Governor Stratton was personally handling all the appointments." Downey remembers being deeply involved, and that "there was nobody appointed that Stratton didn't know about."2 Through February Stratton and Pree worked together on patronage matters during many nights and Sunday afternoons, as well as during more routine hours. By April the details of all but the major appointments had been turned over to Pree, but Stratton still controlled the decisions.

Photo courtesy the Illinois State Historical Library. William G. Stratton Collection

Pree recalls that "the amazing thing about [Stratton] was that he knew so many people personally.... He had been through so many political campaigns up and down the state so many times, that he knew people by the thousands." He knew not only the people, but the communities and counties in which they lived. He knew where a particular person could function well, and he used that knowledge in deciding appointments. According to Pree, "it was understood by the department heads that the governor made the major appointments and that he was in charge of the personnel in the state government.'' It was a process that involved the Republican county chairmen, ward and township committeemen in Cook County, and other party leaders who made recommendations; members of the General Assembly; and persons in the governor's office, including Pree and Downey. Discussions of appointments with Stratton were full and detailed of the local setting, the personalities, the position, everything. "He was on top of it all the time and he wanted to be kept informed." Pree remembers that "we had constant activity; it never lets up; it never ceases."3

The Stratton papers contain many references to his keen personal interest in the distribution of patronage. There are a great many notes in his hand pertaining to such matters, and no position was too obscure to escape his attention.4 Stratton appeared to respect the civil service system, but he felt that em-

26/April 1990/Illinois Issues

ployees who were not covered by it not "certified" should be discharged if they were Democrats or politically neutral. There clear understandings between Stratton and the department heads about how the personnel system was to work. The department was to inform the governor's office of open positions . A "directive" would then go from the governor's office to the department, asking that a specified person be interviewed, or in some cases, appointed, retained, or terminated. The department was asked in the directive to inform the governor's office of the result. If no name could be referred to the department, it would ask for a "release" to recruit on its own initiative. When positions were filled in that fashion, the governor's office was informed. The file of directives was carefully kept, with associated correspondence.5

Department heads were expected to conform to the directives in all cases where it was possible to do so. The sole exception to that general rule was Ross Randolph, the warden at Menard Penitentiary, where a riot during the 1952 election campaign had embarrassed Governor Stevenson. Randolph could say no to personnel directives from the governor's office. Even though Randolph had been appointed by a Democratic governor, Stratton was sensitive to the importance of having a well-run prison and allowed him some discretion in hiring.6

Fred Selcke, who was in a responsible supervisory position in the Department of Registration and Education, remembers that "we didn't fire a lot of people [when Stratton's term began]. The people that did the work ... we didn't get rid of." He also recalls that "Stratton made it very clear ... he didn't want any pay roll jobs. . . . You had to work. . . . There were no ghost pay rollers around that I knew of."7 Ed Pree has the same recollection. "One thing [Stratton] insisted upon from the beginning was that there'd be no so-called political jobs where they didn't work. ... He said, 'if they don't want to work, we don't want them.'. . . He didn't want these so-called, payroll jobs that former administrations had had I guess in both parties where they put somebody on the payroll and he'd show up to collect his check."8

Stratton initiated the practice of holding "open house" in his capital office soon after becoming governor. On some of the "public days" the line would stretch for two blocks. It was intended at first to be a once-a-week affair, but as time went on it was more likely to be once a month. Many years later he recalled with pleasure those public days.9

Life magazine reported upon one of the first of the open houses, held in February, 1953. The callers on the day of Life's visit, according to its reporter,

were patronage hunters, truckers, farmers, well-wishers, favor-seekers and plain time wasters. Stratton, who launched the "public days" because he wanted "to know what's going on," is pleased with the way it has been going. Thursday open house is now a fixture. . . . "It's worth the time," he feels. '' Look at all the things we take care of this way. And in the summer," he adds hopefully, "there'll probably be large groups of children and not as many job seekers."

Life's pictures show the crowd in line at the office door, ordinary-looking citizens, and a youthful governor, his dark hair slicked back, intent on conversation with Mrs. Stella Davis, who confided to Stratton "only that she is 'in very bad with the politicians.' "10

Before he had been in office for many weeks Stratton displayed a clearly defined administrative style. Willard Ice recalls that he "had an entirely different style than Stevenson. He was more down to earth and friendly. . . . He could make you feel like you were just an old buddy."11 While a somewhat critical article published in 1953 held that Stratton delegated little authority12 and undoubtedly he did retain personal control of patronage matters others felt that he delegated extensively.

Fred Selcke remembers that he had easy access to the governor, and that Stratton said, '"All I want you to do is to run it right.' And he delegated, he wasn't sticking his nose in every five minutes."13 Ed Pree, too, recalls that Stratton had enough confidence in himself and in the persons he had chosen as directors to delegate authority freely to them. "Governor Stratton was a strong executive. He had such force of personality and . . . knowledge of government that they all respected him. ... He knew as much about their departments as they did."

Pree remembers that "everybody . . . worked. His directors were all hard working. He was the example himself. . . of what a state servant should be. He worked all the time and he loved it. ... He used to comment . . . 'we like our job ... we enjoy our work.' "14

1. William G. Stratton: Illinois State Historical Library (WGS:ISHL). Box 145, "CS. Survey Recommendations." (The Stratton collection in the Illinois State Historical Library was a major research source for this work. It will be cited as WGS:ISHL. The collection is kept in numbered boxes, with the papers in each box for the most part in file folders, which are labeled. For each citation of the collection, the box number and file folder label will be given.)

2. William "Smokey" Downey, Memoir (Springfield, 111.: Sangamon State University, Oral History Office, 1984), p. 24.

3. Edward Pree, Memoir (Springfield, 111.: Sangamon State University, Oral History Office, 1984), pp. 44, 46-47, 54, 71-73.

4. WGS:ISHL. Box 145. Archives. Drawers 9, 19-21.

5. WGS:ISHL. Box 101, "Public Health"; Box 30.

6. Pree, Memoir, p. 71.

7. Frederic B. Selcke, Memoir (Springfield, Ill.: Sangamon State University, Oral History Office, 1984), p. 5.

8. Pree, Memoir, p. 47.

9. William G. Stratton: Interview, 12/6/85.

10. "Life Goes to a Governor's Open House," Life, March 30, 1953, pp. 146-47.

11. Willard Ice, Memoir (Springfield, 111.: Sangamon State University, Oral History Office, 1977), p. 88.

12. G.A. Robichaux, "Springfield: Big Shoes, Middle-Sized Man," New Republic, Aug. 31, 1953; p. 13.

13. Selcke, Memoir, p. 6.

14. Pree, Memoir, p. 48.

David Kenney, former director of the Illinois Department of Conservation under Gov. James R. Thompson, 1977-85, is visiting professor of political science at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. A delegate to the Sixth Illinois Constitutional Convention, his previous books include Basic Illinois Government (Revised edition, Southern Illinois University Press) and Roll Call! (with Jack Van Der Slik and Samuel Pernacciaro).

April 1990 / Illinois Issues / 27

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