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Gov. James R. Thompson, 1977-1991:
the complete campaigner, the pragmatic centrist

Photo by Terry Farmer
James R. Thompson,
Illinois governor, 1977-1991
On January 14, a remarkable era in Illinois politics and government will draw to a close. Hand on Bible, Jim Edgar will take the oath of office as the state's 38th governor, and after 5,117 days in office, James Robert Thompson Jr. will no longer be the state's chief executive. The mark that Illinois' longest-serving governor leaves upon the state may well be indelible, from the glass walls of Starship Illinois in the Chicago Loop to the rustic outposts of Dixon Springs prison boot camp in deep southern Illinois. During his eventful years, Illinois' economy survived the nation's worst times since the Depression and continued its post-World War II evolution from a manufacturing and agricultural base to one in which high tech, service industries and tourism are key components.

At the helm throughout was Thompson, eager to shape government in order to nurture the change and to prepare Illinois for its role in the global economy of the 21st century. Along the way the governor, too, evolved:

   From a crime-busting federal prosecutor who put away some of the biggest names in the Cook County Democratic machine to a canny wheeler-dealer ready to reward friends and contributors with prestigious appointments and lucrative no-bid contracts.

  From a neophyte first-termer chided for a do-little agenda to the author of Build Illinois, the state's most massive public works program enacted in modern times.

  From a party outsider berated by Republican chieftains for giving jobs to Democrats to the architect of a GOP patronage operation so blatant it forced the U.S. Supreme Court to take notice.

After 14 years, the Thompson record includes a host of impressive accomplishments, tempered by some notable failures and even a few downright embarrassments. More than anything, it's a record of sometimes surprising contrasts, dominated by the personal charm of a man it's almost impossible not to like.

What will future historians make of Thompson, who arrived on the state scene in 1977 bringing "Camelot to the cornfields," in one reporter's words, and who will leave as a self-described "Boss Tweed of modern-day patronage" next month? On one point, at least, there is likely to be scant disagreement: Big Jim was among the most gifted campaigners the state has ever seen,

12/December 1990/Illinois Issues

able to reach out beyond a Republican base and appeal to Democrats, independents, Illinoisans of any and all political persuasions.

He may have started slowly long-time associates recall that he seemed almost shy, diffident, when he first took to the campaign trail and the county fair circuit back in the summer of 1975 but his quick wit, affability and boyish charm made him a natural. One of his pollsters confided early on that Thompson was among the very few candidates he'd ever handled who actually inspired people to want to vote for him.

Perhaps his self-effacing manner touched the egalitarian spirit so deeply rooted in our culture. Leave the button-down, suit-and-tie look to other candidates; Thompson preferred blue jeans, T-shirts and a good time along the way, and he could be equally at home knocking back early-morning shots of Lebanese "white lightning" with Cat workers at an East Peoria bar or clapping along with worshipers at a west side Chicago church.

Chronicling a Thompson visit to a Monmouth parade in 1986, one reporter wrote:

"The small-town crowd applauds. The governor romps to the sidelines to mug for camera-clicking spectators. His getup is a sight to behold: The governor, a 50-year-old man, is decked out in a gaudy purple and white Western Illinois University basketball warmup suit and matching high-top sneakers.

"Having worked up a sweat by the end of the parade route his fifth parade of the week the governor stops off at a porch party for an ice-cold beer and plops down to relax on the front stoop. How about a refill? Sure. How about a shot of tequila? He holds out his palm for a dash of salt and it's bottoms up.

"'This is fun,' he says after the parade."

Thompson's relaxed manner sometimes irritated his Democratic opponents, particularly Adlai E. Stevenson III, whose own patrician air was little help in his two losses to Thompson. When an earlier foe, Michael J. Bakalis, groused that Thompson's casual manner and pet dogs won him vacuous and uncritical TV exposure, the governor responded, "That's his hang-up, not mine. I can't help it if he doesn't like dogs."

After Thompson's decision not to seek a fifth term, some pundits speculated that he would have been a sure loser. In fact, one suggested, the governor might owe his previous victories to luck as much as talent.

Recall, however, that he defeated some pretty well-regarded names among Democrats Secy. of State Michael J. Howlett, as likable a candidate as ever was; Bakalis, the incumbent comptroller and a rising star in the John F. Kennedy image; and Stevenson, a former U.S. senator and product of one of the state's most revered political lineages. None had lost an election before tangling with Thompson.

And, one suspects, there's a good chance that Thompson could have added Neil F. Hartigan to the list; clearly, neither Democrat Hartigan nor Republican Edgar could be ranked in Thompson's class based on their recent performances. Indeed, Thompson felt compelled to jump into the campaign twice, lashing Hartigan for what he called "distortions" of his record and belittling the Democrat's budget-cutting plan.

"Is it difficult to be a spectator?" asked a reporter, a few days before the election. "I knew I was going to be frustrated no matter how the campaign ran standing on the sidelines, but that's normal," said Thompson. "And I knew I was going to be attacked, and that my record would be attacked. That's normal and that doesn't bother me. But I'm enormously frustrated when after I've done 14 budgets, I look at this and he's floating by on it, and it can't happen. It's impossible. And nobody's saying it."

In his own mind, Thompson believes his finest achievement has been his management of the state's finances. In his 1990 State of the State message, delivered before a joint session of the General Assembly, the governor declared: "And here, here is our proudest accomplishment. In the last 13 years you're not going to believe this, so I'm going to say it real slow and real plain.

"In the last 13 years, state government has delivered efficiently more services in more areas to more people than at any time in our history. Whole programs that didn't even exist in 1977 thrive now.

"And yet, the share of the dollars that we take from our people's income in Illinois to do all that is lower not higher lower than it was in 1977.

Thompson was among the very few candidates . . . who actually inspired people to want to vote for him

"Imagine that. More government, better government, costing you less in 1990 than it cost you in 1977.

"Put that in your reelection brochures, Democrats and Republicans.

"In very simple terms, Illinois state government takes a smaller share of its citizens' income today in taxes than we took in 1977 when I stood here for the very first time.

"We take less, but we do more."

Indeed, the numbers bear him out: Adjusted for inflation, the state spent 12.8 cents for every $1 of personal income in fiscal 1977, compared to 10.8 cents in fiscal 1990. In constant dollars, the state spent $11.3 billion last fiscal year, compared to $11.5 billion in 1977.

Yet Thompson's fiscal record forever will be sullied by the popular belief that he lied about the state's financial health in his 1982 and 1986 campaigns. The story holds that both times the governor said the state was in good shape and "promised" not to raise taxes, only to propose tax hikes after reelection. In fact, while the fiscal picture he painted was not as depressing as the "gone-to-Hell-in-a-handbasket" portrait sketched by his two-time Democratic opponent, former U.S. Sen. Stevenson, Thompson made no such promises. Still, as he himself conceded, "It's part of the mythology now."

Taxes were not raised during his first two terms because

December 1990/Illinois Issues/13

Thompson and the General Assembly combined to hold the line on spending, and double-digit inflation fattened tax collections. To keep the ship of state afloat in the early '80s as the recession took hold, medical care for the poor was slashed, state workers were laid off, and school aid was pared.

When Thompson finally proposed raising income tax rates in 1983, the state faced an immediate $300 million budget gap largely because the recession shredded initial revenue estimates. Moreover, an additional $800 million would have had to be carved out of the 1984 budget. Income tax rates went up for only an 18-month period, while the sales tax was permanently upped a penny. Higher gasoline taxes and license plate fees also were approved to help bankroll the largest road program in state history.

Thompson again sought higher income taxes to bolster school funding in 1987 and again in 1988, but he could not budge House Speaker Michael J. Madigan (D-30, Chicago). The governor declared he would no longer campaign actively for the tax increase early in 1989, only to have the powerful Democrat ram through his own plan for a temporary 20 percent hike a few months later. Other taxes were raised during Thompson's last two terms twice on cigarettes, again on gasoline while new items were taxed, like private used car sales, out-of-state phone calls, soft drinks, photofinishing and computer software. Most were linked to specific programs such as roads or Build Illinois.

At the same time, the state's tax structure was becoming less regressive: The sales tax was eliminated from food and drugs, and utility taxes were tied to energy consumption rather than the price of electricity or natural gas. In all, Illinoisans have received more than $8 billion in state tax relief during Thompson's tenure, according to estimates by the Illinois Legislative Economic and Fiscal Commission.

On at least one other occasion, the governor's carefully polished image of fiscal integrity was undone by a celebrated faux pas his 1978 pay raise pirouette, coming just days before his second inauguration. In less than seven hours, the lame-duck legislature voted itself and the governor $8,000-a-year pay raises and then made them law over his immediate veto, conveniently made by his autopen in plenty of time for an override while he vacationed in South Carolina.

The ensuing public outrage forced Thompson to call a special session to roll back the raises and provide phased-in increases. But these actions did not stem the drive for the 1980 Legislative Cutback Amendment, which eliminated one-third of the House. In his second inaugural address, a chastened governor told Illinoisans he was sorry for his part in the scheme: "You were right," he told angry citizens, hundreds of whom had sent him used teabags in protest, "and I apologize."

Yet he never abandoned his belief that better pay was crucial to attract top-flight talent to public service, campaigning throughout his tenure for pay raises for judges, cabinet directors and other key officials.

Thompson's penchant for rapprochement with the legislature was born of personal preference and political necessity. The new governor set the tone from the start: 'There will be no tactics of confrontation, no politics of division," he said in his brief inaugural address in 1977. It was a marked and most welcome change from the man he replaced, Democrat Dan Walker, who four years earlier told lawmakers: "The free ride is over." Walker's deliberate confrontational style produced four years of debilitating warfare between the executive and legislative branches, even though his fellow Democrats controlled both chambers his final two years. Thompson, in contrast, never had the luxury of a Republican General Assembly. In only one two-year span, 1981 to 1983, did his party control a single chamber, and even then the GOP grasp was tenuous because of the hold House Minority Leader Michael J. Madigan had on some city Republicans. Thus Thompson has been a conciliator, a compromiser, a consensus seeker who has enjoyed enormous rapport with a legislature in which his party has been a consistent minority.

In all, Illinoisans have received more than $8 billion in state tax relief during Thompson's tenure

Only once was the spirit of cooperation truly violated, but the exception to the rule produced no long-lasting ill will. In perhaps the boldest political move of his career, the governor in 1981 tried to snatch Senate leadership from a badly splintered Democratic majority. As called for by the Constitution, the governor was presiding over the Senate at its first meeting to choose its own presiding officer. While the 30 fractious Democrats squabbled, with dissident holdouts refusing to support the reelection of Senate President Philip J. Rock (D-8, Oak Park), Thompson declared elected Sen. David C. Shapiro, an Amboy dentist who was the unanimous choice of the Senate's 29 Republicans. Ultimately, the Illinois Supreme Court sorted out the mess, declaring that the votes of a clear majority of the 59 senators, or 30 votes, were needed to elect a Senate president, not just a plurality of the votes cast. Rock, an intensely decent man, harbored no grudges and, in fact, stood by Thompson more steadfastly in later budget battles than did Republican legislative leaders.

A more chronic irritation was the amendatory veto power. Lawmakers complained throughout Thompson's tenure that too often he remained above the legislative scrap as issues were hammered out, then stepped in after the fact to rewrite the bill with an amendatory veto. House Speaker Madigan was perhaps the loudest critic. The speaker ultimately resolved the issue by in effect consigning the revisions he didn't like to parliamentary limbo.

Thompson's role as a compromiser was easier because of the relationship he envisioned with the legislature, that of a partnership. A recurring theme in each of his State of the State messages was the accomplishments we've made, the challenges we face, always in tandem, working cooperatively for the people.

14/December 1990/Illinois Issues

"You have to understand that making government work for people is a shared partnership," he once reflected. "You just don't go in and command the General Assembly to do something; you work with the General Assembly."

His conciliatory style enabled Thompson to bring business and labor leaders to the bargaining table to fashion landmark unemployment insurance and worker's compensation packages that helped mend the sorry image of the state's business climate. In part, Thompson was able to broker such deals and enjoy cordial relations with organized labor throughout four terms because he was not a rigid ideologue, often to the consternation of those who complained that the governor had no sweeping vision, no philosophical agenda, for the state but merely reacted to each new crisis as it came along. Of course, Thompson was a prosecutor, not a philosopher, before his election; his case-by-case approach to managing state government reflected his legal training and experience.

While the national Republican party turned hard right, Thompson remained a centrist; while a conservative White House collided with a liberal Congress, pragmatist Thompson colluded with a horse-trading legislature. The governor never acted as though his administration held a monopoly on good ideas; some of his most significant achievements were products of compromise, emerging from the legislative process in much different form than the governor's original proposals.

Consider, for example, his Class X plan for fixed prison sentences for serious crimes, or his Build Illinois program, or even the temporary rather than permanent income tax increase of 1983. He also was keenly aware that individual legislators had to return to their districts with something to show for their service. Often, that something turned out to be a project folks back home viewed as an important local improvement and skeptics elsewhere derided as a dip into the pork barrel.

Thompson's willingness to deal with Democrats and to settle for half a loaf, rather than go hungry, generally stood him in good stead over the years. "I can't think of a single, major initiative that I have requested from the General Assembly that I haven't eventually got," Thompson reflected after the 1989 session.

Less selective memories probably could be found among supporters of such woebegone causes as the Equal Rights Amendment or merit judicial selection, issues to which he's paid at least lip service. Folks who flocked to sign the so-called Thompson Proposition in 1978 are still waiting for the lid on state taxes and spending they thought they were getting. And it must have been tiresome for the governor to see his vetoes overridden with such impunity. Though it would be difficult to compile the statistics, it's probably a safe bet that Thompson was overridden more often than all his predecessors in this century combined.

But the successes were often spectacular and sometimes came in dramatic fashion, perhaps none more so than the last-second, June 30 House vote in 1988 that kept the White Sox in Chicago. The governor himself worked the Senate and House floors that night, cajoling GOP support for a new stadium. You can bet he'll be there for Opening Day 1991, even if as a private citizen he has to pay his own way.

The new Comiskey Park. The State of Illinois Center. The new Arlington International Racetrack. Diamond-Star Motors. Sears, Roebuck and Co. More than 14,000 miles of highways improved, almost 5,200 bridges repaired. Fifteen new prisons. Bricks and mortar, ribbons of concrete. Tangible responses to specific situations, they are demonstrable proof of Thompson's achievements as a builder.

Thompson's willingness . . .to settle for half a loaf, rather than go hungry, . . .stood him in good stead

Even some of the governor's successes, though, have proven to be headaches. His vaunted Class X, for example, has combined with the war on drugs to keep Thompson scrambling to build prisons fast enough to house the influx of new inmates. Despite earmarking almost $750 million during his tenure for improvements, including adding almost 15,500 new beds, the state prison system remains dangerously overcrowded. Moreover, the incentive packages that wooed Diamond-Star and Sears were scorched by state auditors in a scathing report that charged mismanagement, sloppy recordkeeping and possibly illegal lending activities by the state economic development agency that Thompson created.

He has struggled, sometimes seemingly in vain, with the state's more intractable problems, those net lending themselves to a concrete solution. Thompson's lowest marks come in education and human services. Most frequently, advocates chastised the governor for not adequately financing programs; but in some cases, even a blizzard of dollars failed to yield the hoped-for results.

School administrators in particular grew weary of hearing the governor like almost every other elected official proclaim that education was his No. 1 priority, while the share of the state budget dedicated to elementary and secondary schooling dipped to about 25 percent from 30 percent during his tenure. Meanwhile, the burden for financing local schools increasingly fell on real estate taxpayers; the state share of the bill for elementary and secondary education was 47 percent during the 1976-77 school year; it slipped to an estimated 38 percent last school year. Moreover, one out of every five Illinois school districts was on the state Board of Education's financial watch list last school year.

Thompson should be credited, however, for his role in ramrodding an $875 million financing package early in 1980 to save Chicago schools from bankruptcy. He was also a key player in crafting a visionary educational reform package in 1985 (though inadequate funding has blunted its effect).

Perhaps the administration's most acute shortcomings occurred in human services, particularly mental health. Despite a decade of reports including some by task forces named by

December 1990/Illinois Issues/15

Thompson state institutions remain one step ahead of federal watchdogs, while community providers struggle to handle burgeoning caseloads with skimpy state assistance.

Poor people's advocates charged that Thompson's showcase welfare reform programs were more image than substance. Project Chance, a welfare-to-work initiative, was revamped in response to complaints that it was unduly punitive. The Illinois Hospital Association, meanwhile, has sued the state, charging low payments under the Department of Public Aid's competitive contracting system have contributed to the closing of 16 hospitals in recent years. Even with last January's 7.5 percent increase the first since 1985 welfare grants provide less than half of the minimum amount the Department of Public Aid calculates is needed for a poor family to survive.

In some instances, results were disappointing even when Thompson and the General Assembly poured dollars into programs. Funding for the Children and Family Services Department, for example, increased sharply to $472 million in fiscal 1991 from $114 million in Thompson's first year, yet reports of child abuse continue at staggering levels, and child care workers labor under caseloads far above national guidelines. Similarly, Illinois fell short of the national goal of reducing infant mortality despite intensive efforts over the last six years. The goal by 1990 was to have no more than nine deaths for every 1,000 live births. State public health officials are heartened, however, that this year's estimated 10.2 rate is considerably below the figures from a decade ago.

More troublesome for many. . . was the creeping growth of pinstripe patronage

Public health also was the setting for one of the administration's most serious failures. The Illinois Department of Public Health badly handled the 1985 salmonella outbreak, the worst in the nation's history, that killed six people and sickened 17,000 others. Although early evidence pointed to contaminated milk from Jewel Food Stores' Hillfarm Dairy in Melrose Park, the Department of Public Health waited 11 days to force its closing. In the midst of the crisis, Thompson fired his public health director after belatedly discovering that the official had been vacationing in Mexico for a week, while the governor assumed he was heading up the investigation.

At the same time, Thompson has earned praise for his skill at bringing talented people into state government and moving them into high-ranking jobs, including several department heads who've gone on to federal cabinet posts. Three former Thompson administration officials were on the Republican ticket this fall, led by Edgar, who left the legislature in 1979 to become the governor's top lobbyist. Comptroller candidate Susan S. Suter headed the departments of Public Aid and Rehabilitation Services for the governor, while Gregory W. Baise left Thompson's inner office to become secretary of the Department of Transportation before running for state treasurer.

The Thompson administration was virtually free of scandal, no small feat in a state with Illinois' checkered history, though Thompson himself came under fire for ethical blind spots. Perhaps the most embarrassing revelations occurred in 1982, when newspaper accounts detailed how Thompson accepted costly gifts, such as South African gold coins, art work and cash, from people with state government interests.

More troublesome for many as the administration grew older was the creeping growth of pinstripe patronage, a catchy phrase for the no-bid consulting contracts, legal work, bond business, office leases and low-interest loans channeled with distressing regularity to insiders with ties to the governor. Defending the practice in an interview, the governor said: "I don't think any press account of pinstripe patronage has ever pointed to an abuse of the process or has ever documented a case where the state got less than first-class service from its lawyers or its bond houses."

On the other hand, a 5-4 majority of the U.S. Supreme Court held Thompson's handling of what might be called "blue-collar" patronage the conventional doling out of state jobs to party faithful violated the U.S. Constitution. The court ruling affirmed what critics said all along: The hiring freezes Thompson imposed, more or less continuously, throughout his tenure were merely patronage tools used to ensure that worthy Republicans got available state jobs.

Early on, party leaders complained that Thompson was not grateful enough to those who labored in the GOP vineyards. "There is no patronage," chaffed one Republican during Thompson's first term. "He's got all those former assistant U.S. attorneys he brought with him who think patronage is a dirty word, illegal and immoral." Recalling such sentiments, Thompson mused: "It came as some irony that at the end of my administration, after all this, the Supreme Court of the United States certifies what these Republican chairmen refused to believe all along that I had the best patronage machine in the nation, that it was a Republican machine."

As the curtain falls on the state's longest-running administration and Big Jim Thompson strides out of the spotlight at least for the moment how does his public rate his performance? Forty-eight percent of Illinois residents approve of his handling of the job, while 43 percent say he will go down in history as above average or outstanding, according to a Chicago Sun-Times poll taken last September. Perhaps it's fitting that the final word on Thompson come from his No. 1 nemesis for much of his record-setting tenure. "In politics, the ultimate test is whether or not you won the last election," observed House Speaker Madigan when the governor announced his decision to forego a try for a fifth term, "and so he leaves the office a complete winner. "

Charles N. Wheeler has been a reporter in the Chicago Sun-Times Statehouse bureau during all of the Thompson administration.

16/December 1990/Illinois Issues

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