By CHARLES N. WHEELER III
Every parent — and anyone who recalls his own childhood — will immediately recognize the wishful thinking inherent in the new Fair Campaign Practices Act, which is making its debut this campaign season.
It's the sort of against-the-odds-hoping that prompts mothers everywhere to tell their kids, "Be sure to stay out of puddles on the way home from school." We all know, of course, that youngsters are attracted to very small bodies of standing water like politicians to a county fair. But a parent's job description requires the admonition, so it's given. In like manner, the premise of the new legislation, which took effect on January 1, is straightforward:
"It is the intent of the Legislature that every candidate for public office in this state who subscribes to the Code of Fair Campaign Practices will follow the basic principles of decency, honesty and fair play in order to encourage healthy competition and open discussion of issues and candidate qualifications and discourage practices which cloud the issues or unfairly attack opponents."
To achieve this laudable goal, candidates pledge allegiance to such principles as avoiding appeals to racial prejudice, refraining from scurrilous personal attacks, and eschewing campaign materials that distort the facts. Of course, participation is voluntary, and the law provides no penalty for candidates who sign with their fingers crossed. In fact, a measure introduced last month would explicitly provide that a candidate who reneges can't be prosecuted. Wouldn't want to go overboard on this fair play stuff, don't you know.
So far, more than 250 candidates for state office have signed on, according to the state Board of Elections, the official repository for the pledges. That means we'll see only positive, issue-oriented campaigns, right? Sure. And the White Sox will celebrate their final year in old Comiskey Park with a pennant.
For rank-and-file voters who would like to believe that noble ideals can overcome political tradition, here are a few things to watch out for:
• Appeals to regionalism, especially brainless Chicago-bashing. A good example of such knee-jerk reaction occurred a while back when some downstate lawmakers were berated by their challengers for voting to increase Chicago school property taxes. Instead of asking Chicagoans alone to foot the bill, would the critics have preferred giving city schools a bigger slice of the state aid pie at the expense of their own school districts? Rabid parochialism has been a proven tactic to impress less thoughtful voters, but the fact remains we're all one state.
• Selective use of isolated roll calls to distort an incumbent's record. Each year, there are thousands of roll calls in each house, and probably nothing less than divine intervention could assure that not one of those votes cast by a given law-maker could be misconstrued. Perhaps the worst case happened several years ago, when one challenger used a five-year-old roll call to suggest the incumbent favored child pornography. In fact, the lawmaker voted against a conference committee report that added mandatory prison sentences for first-time home invaders to an anti-child pornography bill, because he opposed the home invasion portion.
• Vague slogans and nebulous promises. "He cares about YOU!" is a perfect generic example of the mindless cliches that all too often pass for platforms. After all, how far would a candidate get if he candidly admitted that all he really cared about was winning? Falling in the same category are claims that all that ails the state could be put right at no extra cost, just by cutting out waste. It may be
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news to some, but there isn't any little guy down in the bowels of the Statehouse shoveling dollar bills into the boiler. If the waste watcher can't tell you which programs or budget lines he'd cut, he's probably peddling snake oil. Shorn of such shibboleths, what can a candidate talk about? Savvy voters might press would-be state leaders on issues like these:
• Extension of the temporary 20 percent income tax increase. Candidates who want to roll back the rates should be pressed to explain whether they want to maintain current funding levels for education and local government. If so, where would they find the dollars without the extra income tax revenue? And "cutting waste" is not an acceptable answer.
• Prison crowding. Cracking down on wrongdoers, especially those involved with drugs, has become an apple pie and motherhood issue. But state prisons already are dangerously crowded, so candidates should be quizzed about their views on sentencing alternatives. Hopefuls who espouse a "lock 'em up and throw away the key" attitude in particular owe voters an explanation of how they'd pay for all the new prisons such policies dictate.
• Health care. The availability and affordability of medical care is a serious problem, particularly in the inner city and in rural areas, but there's serious disagreement about what if anything the state should do. Proposals range from tax-supported universal health care for all to tort reform and incentives to encourage a greater response from the private sector. It's a complex issue, but one every candidate should be ready to discuss.
• The environment. Fashioning workable environmental legislation often calls for difficult tradeoffs. Consider just one aspect: Should local governments lose their veto power over landfill siting? If not, how do you overcome the "not in my backyard" syndrome to assure adequate solid waste disposal capacity?
The foregoing list, of course, is not exhaustive; other vexatious issues face the state as well. The point is, their thoughtful discussion presents a viable option for any candidate who's sincere about his fair campaign practices pledge.
Charles N. Wheeler III is a correspondent in the Springfield Bureau of the Chicago Sun-Times.
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