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Governor's race: messages and miscalculations


To a spirited rendition of "It's A Grand Old Flag" by the Springfield Municipal Band, an exhausted but elated Gov.-elect Jim Edgar made a triumphant entry at a welcome-home rally in the Capitol last month. His victory over Democratic candidate Neil F. Hartigan, Edgar told several hundred enthusiastic supporters packing the Rotunda, sent a message: "A public official as a candidate can be candid with the voters before the election on the topic of taxes."

Perhaps. But it certainly doesn't hurt when a major miscalculation by strategists for the other side costs your opponent tens of thousands of votes, as unofficial returns suggest happened to Hartigan. Indeed, after 16 months of the costliest campaign in Illinois history, the election of Illinois' 38th governor turned on two risky gambles.

Republican Edgar rolled the dice first, announcing more than a year ago that he would extend the current 20 percent income tax surcharge, scheduled to expire July 1. Edgar's decision, taken in hopes that voters would reward candor, triggered howls of anguish from conservative circles and helped launch anti-tax, pro-life activist Steven Baer into a surprisingly strong primary bid for the GOP nomination.

Hartigan, meanwhile, seized the issue and ran an anti-tax campaign that portrayed Edgar as a big spender whose only answer to every problem was higher taxes. The alternative offered by the attorney general had particular appeal for disenchanted conservatives: Cut state spending by 2 percent by eliminating waste and duplication. The resultant savings, he said, would more than replace the loss to education when the surcharge expires.

Playing the prairie populist, Hartigan rode the tax issue back into a dead heat with Edgar by Labor Day, after early polls showed him lagging well behind. One of the more fascinating aspects of the race, in fact, was the poll finding that a sizable group of voters favored Hartigan even though they did not think he would be able to carry out his budget-cutting plan. Apparently, if the poll results can be believed (admittedly, a king-sized caveat), many people intended to vote for the candidate who promised what they wanted to hear, rather than someone who told them what they expected to happen.

Given such forgiving support. Hartigan's anti-tax, anti-insider message could well have propelled the attorney general into the Executive Mansion. Indeed, unofficial returns show that Hartigan ran more strongly downstate and in the suburbs around Chicago than did former U.S. Sen. Adlai E. Stevenson III in 1982, when he lost to Thompson by 5,074 votes in the closest governor's race in state history.

In the Chicago suburbs, Hartigan held Edgar to about a 260,000-vote plurality, some 80,000 less than the margin Thompson piled up on Stevenson. In the 96 downstate counties, it was nearly a standoff; Hartigan lost by only 47,000 out of almost 1.4 million votes cast, and he captured 43 counties. In contrast, Stevenson won only 18 counties downstate in 1982 and Thompson rolled to a 137,000-vote plurality. Clearly, Hartigan's strong showing outside of Chicago should have positioned him for victory.

But the ballot box appeal of his message in suburbia and downstate was undercut by a calculated risk taken by Cook County Democratic chieftains, who tried to keep the Harold Washington Party off the ballot lest its appeal allow Republicans to win key county offices. Democratic challengers contended the nascent party's petitions did not meet the burdensome signature requirements for new parties set out in the state's election code, a position ultimately taken by the Illinois Supreme Court along party lines.

Striking back, Washington organizers urged African-American voters to dump key Democratic candidates, including Hartigan, and took their case to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ordered the party's all-black slate of county candidates back

6/December 1990/Illinois Issues

on the ballot for the November election. The U.S. high court ruling should have been no surprise; federal courts have become increasingly less tolerant of laws that limit access to the political process, especially when minority rights are involved.

Claiming the high court order came too late to prepare normal ballot materials, election officials in the city and county instead developed a cumbersome procedure which required a voter to locate a preferred candidate's ballot number in a booklet, then find and punch out the corresponding number on an accompanying computer card. Critics said the time-consuming process was intended to encourage straight-ticket voting in heavily Democratic areas. Its more likely effect, however, was to discourage any kind of voting after more than a week of heavy media attention on the long lines and mass confusion anticipated on Election Day.

The net result of the Democrats' anti-Washington party strategy was voter uncertainty and anger that served to depress severely both turnout and pluralities for the Democratic gubernatorial candidate in Chicago, particularly in black wards where the loss of potential votes almost certainly cost Hartigan the election. Unofficial returns from 19 predominantly black wards on the city's south and west sides showed Hartigan capturing about 80 percent of the vote, about 10 points below Stevenson's mark in 1982. More significantly, however, the Democrat's 1982 plurality of more than 295,000 in those wards was about 100,000 votes more than the total cast in the black wards in 1990. Had black voters turned out this year in comparable numbers to 1982, even an 80-20 split would have improved Hartigan's showing there by more than 100,000 votes, enough for a solid victory.

Indeed, even a total vote in the black community on a par with the more modest 1986 turnout could have swung the election to Hartigan had voters shown the same disdain for Edgar as they evinced for Thompson four yours ago (Thompson won by less than 8 percent).

The conclusion seems inescapable: Had Democrats welcomed the Washington Party to the political arena instead of trying to keep the door closed, Hartigan's anti-tax message might well have carried the day.

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

December 1990/Illinois Issues/7

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