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Paula Wolff: conscience of the Thompson administration

When Paula Wolff's political science professor suggested she leave the east for graduate study at the University of Chicago, she had only the vaguest notion of the landscape that lay ahead. Illinois was a nebulous place somewhere in the center of the country one of those flat, squarish states that began with a vowel.

Paula Wolff

Twenty-three years later, Wolff still views herself as an easterner. But during the last decade and a half, the transplant to the Midwest has done more to shape the governmental landscape of her adopted home than all but a handful of its natives. And in the shaping, she has earned a reputation as the conscience of the Thompson administration.

"She is one of those rare few people . . . who's been there the whole time and had an enormous impact," says Gov. James R. Thompson, the man who plucked Wolff from academia to help him pick his first cabinet and who then picked her to fill the newly minted job of administration program director.

"She's smart, she's tough, she's practical, she's pragmatic, she's politically sensitive," Thompson says. "She'll come into my office or write a memo and say to me, 'Whoa, wait a second. You're about to do something stupid and here's what it is.' Paula is one of the most talented people I have ever met in government in all of my years."

That they met at all is an accident of time and place, for Wolff followed an unlikely path into Illinois government.

She was born in Washington, D.C., in 1945, where her father was a lawyer in the adjutant general's office. After the war, he moved the family to New York, where Wolff attended public schools until, she says, her parents discovered after her sophomore year that she "couldn't read or write." She was shipped off to private school for catch-up work and then headed off to Massachusetts to Smith College.

Wolff had no particular interest then in government. But when she walked into the gym to register for class, the man she walked up to was a government teacher. "He asked why there was no government class on my list," Wolff said. "So I took one. And I became fascinated with political theory." Politics was not a foreign concept. Wolff's mother worked for Adiai E. Stevenson II in his 1952 and 1956 campaigns for president, and her father, manager of a corporate law firm in New York, often discussed current affairs at the dinner table.

Wolff's first foray into political activism was in her junior year at Smith when she and three friends formed CRASH, the Committee to Reevaluate the Smith Handbook, to challenge rules that limited room visits by boys to twice a year and required that during those visits, doors remain open at least 18 inches and three feet remain planted firmly on the floor. Wolff sheepishly admits that she cannot remember what the group accomplished. But it must have had some impact, for she was elected class president in her senior year her only bid for elective office and the only one she ever wants to make.

She avoided the more radical campus politics of the University of Chicago in the late 1960s. But she canvassed for Eugene McCarthy's presidential campaign in 1968 and learned in the process that she had a lot more to learn about the world. "I was canvassing in Milwaukee and I walked into a whorehouse," she says. "I was so damn naive. It was 1 in the afternoon and there were all these mattresses on the floor and people were laying around in their underwear." After a few minutes of blank stares and laughter at her efforts to get out the vote, she recalls, "I finally caught on."

She retreated to Chicago. But not into the isolation of

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academia. While finishing her classwork for a doctorate, she worked as a volunteer teacher in Chicago's public schools and as a staff member on a statewide issue analysis group set up by Adlai E. Stevenson III.

In the spring of 1969, unwilling to begin work on her dissertation, she accepted an invitation from George Ranney, a friend of the family, to come and work for Gov. Richard B. Ogilvie's budget bureau, where Ranney was deputy director. Ogilvie had no one to spare to monitor the Constitutional Convention taking place a few blocks away. "All the big boys were gearing up for the 1970 legislative session," Wolff says. "No one really cared about the convention." So she was assigned to keep an eye on things.

"It was a remarkable opportunity for someone like me," Wolff says. "Legal history and constitutional law had been two of the four areas I was interested in. The principles and issues that underlay what was happening were things I'd thought about. And it was a real eye-opener. I had no idea how a deliberative body worked. I could see in a compressed way how the dynamics of the state worked."

Wolffs weren't the only eyes being opened. The young Ogilvie staffer caught the attention of a Con-Con delegate named Wayne Whalen. They met in August, dated in December and on the original Earth Day in April 1970, he proposed. "It was like a grade B movie," Wolff says. "He called me at 10 a.m. and said, 'Let's get married. But I can't do it until after 2.' And he wanted me to pick up his suit and tie. We got a blood test, after flagging down a car to get a ride, and found a judge to perform the ceremony who had ridden his bike to work for Earth Day and was hanging around because he didn't want to ride it home."

There was little time to honeymoon. After the convention ended, Ogilvie asked Wolff to work on the campaign for approval of merit selection of judges a separate constitutional question put to the voters along with the new constitution. The proposal failed, but it gave Wolff her first glimpse of the inner workings of a statewide campaign, including fly-arounds and campaign commercials.

Her work on the campaign led to an invitation to reorganize Ogilvie's staff to provide a more balanced view of program and policy questions. "My observation in the Ogilvie administration had been that the assistants to the governor tended each to want to promote his or her perspective on issues to the governor," she says. "That's not to say they weren't doing a good job each in their own area, but the overall problem was that the lack of communication among those people caused the governor not to see issues from a multifaceted perspective."

The reorganization came too late to rein in Ogilvie's staff, and Wolff left government when he was defeated to complete her doctorate and to teach. But she never forgot it. And when she was named staff director in 1976 of a blue-ribbon panel on state government reorganization set up by Thompson and Michael J. Hewlett Sr., his Democratic gubernatorial opponent, she revived and refined the idea. As presented to Thompson, it called for one person to coordinate the administration's program and policy development.

Wolff admits that she wanted the job she was proposing. "And given my healthy ego and sense of self, I probably telegraphed it," she says. But she barely knew Thompson. And he didn't know her at all. Nonetheless, Thompson says, Wolff "came highly recommended. And from the moment I met her, I liked her immensely on a personal level."

So what, exactly, does a program director do? Wolff laughs at the question, recalling the last time it was asked. She and Whalen were at his (now former) Chicago law firm's Christmas dinner, where she was seated next to the most senior of the firm's senior partners. "A very nice man, very traditional in his lifestyle," Wolff says. "He turned to me and obviously wanted to engage me in conversation. He said, 'Could you tell me what you do in an average day?' And then he turned to his wife and said, 'Listen to this, this will be interesting to you.' As I got about halfway through what I thought was a very short rendition ... he interrupted me. He said, 'Do you want a little unsolicited advice? Stay home with the children.' " A week later, the same senior partner called Whalen into his office to give him his Christmas bonus. He told Whalen that the younger lawyer was doing a wonderful job. "And he got finished with his glorious speech and said, 'Now do you have anything you want to say to me?' And Wayne said, 'Yes. Keep your unsolicited advice to yourself,' " Wolff says,

The story illustrates two points: First, one of the reasons Wolff and Whalen have remained married despite her grueling commutes

Wolff admits that she wanted the job she was proposing. 'And given my healthy ego and sense of self, I probably telegraphed it ...' But she barely knew Thompson. And he didn't know her at all

between Springfield and Chicago and their differing party affiliations. (He thought seriously about challenging Neil F. Hartigan in the Democratic primary for governor this spring.) And second, some of the obstacles she has had to overcome in a political system that remains dominated by men two decades after she entered it.

"Women are taken substantially less seriously in the Illinois political/public policy process than men," Wolff says. One of the things that's always struck her, she says, is that the Senate tends not to turn down men when confirming the governor's appointments, while women have a rougher time. "I view that as a reflection of a deeper seated problem," Wolff says. "I think the system has just been closed to women for so long that they are the aberrations, so that's the place where the system is least likely to act in a conventional fashion. They don't let a woman's name roll through the way they would a man's. And I don't think it's any accident there have been very, very few women up until very recently who have been real players in the

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legislative process. We've had maybe four women in our legislative office since its inception [while] close to 100 people have moved through those spots."

Wolff says she has been one of the lucky ones. "I've been extremely fortunate because the governor is not at all troubled by dealing with a woman in an even-handed way. It's very hard for the people around me to discount me if they know that he won't." Thus, even Wolff's critics give her high marks as an able advocate while at the same time disdaining the programs she advocates.

Wolff views her role as helping Thompson create "a substantive agenda that the administration can pursue" by acting as a clearinghouse for ideas, overseeing a research staff of about a dozen people to assure that new programs do not do more harm than good and marshaling the cabinet and outside interest groups to make sure initials approved by the governor are carried out. Her mastery of facts from the roots of a problem to the ramifications of its solution gives her a potent weapon in carrying out her job and in carrying the day as an advocate for change.

To combat the tendency to focus only on the crisis du jour, she requires her staff each year to develop lists of nettlesome, long-term questions with no simple, short-term answers. The lists dubbed the "parade of the horribles" and depicted as creeping slugs on purple staff T-shirts are for those nights when people awake at 2 a.m. and ask themselves what they've done lately "that's good for government," Wolff says. "You should be able to look at these things and figure out how you have worked toward resolving them."

Wolff is no believer that government can cure all of society's ills. The motto of her shop is: Solve no problem before its time. Nonetheless, the slim, thoughtful woman with the ready smile an be a fierce advocate when she believes the moment to act has come. "She has always clearly been the conscience of the administration in terms of being the voice that spoke up and said, 'No matter what the politics, here's what's right or wrong,'" says Jim Reilly, who, ironically, moved to have Wolff muzzled when he took over the job of deputy governor.

Her advocacy, particularly for social programs, has led to battles on fiscal grounds with Robert Mandeville, director of the Bureau of the Budget, and on political grounds with Thompson's patronage and legislative advisers, who have been wary of the impact of Wolff's liberal agenda on the governor's Republican political fortunes. Former Thompson staffers say that Jim Fletcher, the governor's first chief of staff, and Robert Kjellander, an early patronage chief, would walk around the office "ranting and raving" about the program director's activist agenda. She and Greg Baise, Thompson's patronage chief in the early 1980s, also regularly crossed swords when, from Baise's point of view, Wolff "stuck her nose in where it didn't belong," says another administration source who requested anonymity.

Nor is the animosity limited to the executive branch. Senate Minority Leader James "Pate" Philip (R-23, Wood Dale), "thinks she's a communist," says one high-ranking Thompson aide. "He would blame her for every less-than-reactionary thing the governor did." The distrust runs so deep that Philip assesses gubernatorial appointees by asking if each is "a Paula person."

As one former administration aide explained: "It tended to be the ostensibly political people who didn't like her because they saw her as a good government person who didn't have much respect for them. She didn't. And it was pretty mutual."

But despite the opposition, Wolff has survived -- and often prevailed. Jim Skilbeck, Thompson's longest-serving aide, says Wolff "doesn't often fight a fight she doesn't know she can win in advance. She'd be a good pool player. She always knows where the ball is and where it will land after she hits a shot. Not that people walk a wide path around her, but they don't try to walk over her."

And she has grown with the job, winning grudging praise even from the man whose budget her programs drain. In the administration's early days, Mandeville recalls, "I thought Paula would propose new programs without much regard to the cost of doing it and how it would fit into the overall priorities. In more recent years, she has become very much aware of the cost of these programs and the relative priority of one program versus another. And I've come to realize that cost is not the only point."

Ilana Rovner, a federal judge in Chicago and former assistant deputy governor, sums up Wolff's success simply: "Paula is brilliant. She is two to three people rolled up in one. She has a wonderful family [three girls and a boy], she is a gourmet cook, she always manages to look beautiful, she holds huge dinner parties for her husband's firm [Phelan, Pope and John], she has a garden with 100 different kinds of flowers and vegetables that she tends herself and she is a devoted daughter." Moreover, Rovner says, Wolff is "an original thinker" who is "very result oriented. She thinks things out carefully and always has a plan."

Some of that advice comes from Whalen, whom Wolff says has "a very good legal and problem-solving mind." She will talk through a problem with him, ask his advice and get "a non-partisan perspective or solution on things."

Their relationship has helped make Wolff a suspect guest at the Grand Old Party. But it is her own definition of the role of government not Whalen's or even Thompson's that grounds her: Government, she says, should be a teacher and moral model. "I think for the most part people look down on government and people who serve in goverment," she says. "I'd like through our actions to demonstrate to people that that is inappropriate and also to have government be a kind of teacher of values. I don't mean specific ideological values, but honesty, fairness, decency. Government, by being a strong source for good in society, can help improve the quality of the society.''

That is where she draws the line in battles between politics and policy. "If you make a compromise to the point where you would be publicly embarrassed if people understood what kinds of concessions you had made, that would be a sign you were past that point," she says. And in 14 years, "I don't think the line has moved. "

Kathleen Best is the Illinois political correspondent for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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