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Jim Edgar, Illinois' 38th governor:
transition from Republican to Republican

Jim Edgar

Photo by Terry Farmer

Jim Edgar, Illinois' 38th governor, 1991-

IIlinois is about to witness something that has not happen for 62 years, a change of administrations without a change of party. When Jim Edgar takes state government's helm on January 14, it will be the first time since 1929 that a newly elected governor has succeeded a governor of the same party. That last happened when Louis L. Emmerson, a southern Illinois Republican, took over from Len Small, the Kankakee Republican and incumbent governor Emmerson had bested in the primary. Emmerson was also the last secretary of state to be elected governor. Small was the last elected governor who had experience as a state legislator. Illinois' 38th governor, Jim Edgar, served 10 years as secretary of state and was twice elected to the Illinois House.

While the transition from Republican Gov. James R. Thompson to Republican Gov. Jim Edgar is historically significant, Edgar himself is making a personal transition from the intense and hotly contested statewide campaign to the more mundane but equally demanding challenge of getting ready to govern. Edgar paused on December 5 to reflect on where his campaign had been, where his transition effort stood and where his administration is headed.

The election was not kind to Illinois Republicans. Jim Edgar captured the governor's mansion and Lt. Gov. George H. Ryan won the secretary of state's office, although arguably Treasurer Jerry Cosentino lost the latter race. Edgar says that he feels fortunate to have won, believing that 14 years of a Republican governor and 10 of a Republican president hurt the party's candidates, as did October's budget snafus in the nation's capital. "[Lynn Martin] got wiped out. . .. If somebody would have told me that four months before the election, I would probably have been a lot more nervous the last two weeks, and I was nervous enough the last two weeks, " Edgar says.

In his own race Edgar found the biggest handicap to be the voters' it's-time-for-a-change sentiment. The governor-elect believes that support for his Democratic opponent, Atty. Gen. Neil F. Hartigan, was less pro-Hartigan or even anti-Edgar than it was the conviction that every so often government should be shaken up. Edgar thinks that he at least partially overcame that sentiment by convincing voters that he, too, represented change.

Another hurdle that Edgar had to clear on his way to victory was his early support for extension of the temporary income tax increase that is now set to expire on June 30. Hartigan hammered Edgar's support of "the largest permanent tax increase

12/January 1991/Illinois Issues

in Illinois history," and many polls showed considerable voter opposition to the extension. Edgar responds that the issue of character helped him overcome public opposition to the tax increase: "I think one of the messages from this election was that people voted based on who they believed or on character more than on just issues." In races for executive office, Edgar contends that character is as important as the issues.

Edgar also attributes his victory in part to the get-out-the-vote effort put forth by his organization, where party workers outdid Democrats at their own game. He says that Election Day tracking polls showed the campaign dead even, closer than the 2 to 3 percentage point lead that Edgar held in some polls published in the media. Conventional wisdom says that a dead heat goes to the Democrats, who do a better job getting their supporters to the polls and convincing the unconvinced to vote for the party candidate. That did not happen this year, says Edgar: "We did a better job, I think, getting our votes out."

Edgar disputes reports that he dislikes campaigning. "I've been reading this stuff about how I don't like campaigning. I like campaigning." Campaigning, Edgar says, in some ways is far easier than governing: "To some extent all you could do in a day was hit all the media markets and you were pretty well taken care of. Maybe there were other events you went to, but if you didn't get there, the world didn't come to an end." He

'I don't want to be Franklin Roosevelt and spend my time refereeing my key staff ... *

adds that in a different sense there is more pressure during a campaign, particularly pressure not to make a mistake that your opponent can exploit.

His post-election days, in contrast, he says, have been too short for all the things he needs to do before taking office on January 14. There are still people he has been unable to thank for their help on his campaign, he says. And he has had less time than he had hoped for to savor the victory and to relax. He says he sleeps better than he did during the campaign but now wakes up worrying about the budget instead of the election.

During his 16-month campaign, Edgar says, he concentrated on getting elected, not wishing to jinx himself by getting too far ahead. He concedes that, although he has spent more than 20 years in state government and had been through a transition as secretary of state, the prospect of setting up the executive branch was overwhelming.

Edgar is definitely looking forward to governing: "I ran for office not just to run for office. ... I ran for office so I can win and do something. I'm particularly excited about putting together what I think will be a first-rate team and going out and trying to meet some of the challenges.'' The key to success will be in finding the right people, he says.' 'In the executive branch you're only as good as the people around you, and so picking the right people is extremely important.'' He said his initial worry was that he could not woo people from high-paying private sector jobs or that people he wanted would decline to come. In its early stages Edgar claims recruiting success. His initial top staff appointments included:

• As his press secretary, Mike Lawrence, 48, his press secretary and adviser as secretary of state and for the campaign.

• As his chief of staff. Kirk Dillard, 35, a Chicago lawyer in private practice and a former Senate staffer and Thompson's director of legislative affairs from 1983 to 1987.

• As his chief counsel, Arnold Kanter, 45, a Chicago lawyer in private practice and a former assistant U.S. attorney in Chicago.

Edgar says he looks for people who know their fields. He also wants aides and directors who can relate to people because he considers government "the most people business there is." He wants some diversity, geographically and otherwise. And he wants his staff to get along: "I don't want to be Franklin Roosevelt and spend my time refereeing my key staff people fighting each other."

The people on his team will distinguish the Edgar administration from Thompson's, Edgar says. Some, like Dillard, will be returning to state government after a period away from it. Others, like Kanter, will be new to Springfield. "They're not going to be all different because after 14 years of being governor there are a lot of folks who have dealt at one time or another with a Thompson administration," Edgar says.

To emphasize the change of administrations, Edgar has pledged to replace all state agency directors, although some may be simply shuffled. Some, he acknowledges, are excellent directors and have not been on the job too long. Nevertheless, Edgar says that there must be a demonstration that the administration is changing, that the Edgar administration has succeeded the Thompson administration.

As part of that change Edgar says he will bring in some new faces on his staff. He says all will be qualified and know their roles. "We need some people from outside of government. You're going to see that in my front office staff."

Edgar will take office without an overwhelming mandate from the people. He won by about 84,000 votes, which he acknowledges is not huge, but then Edgar quotes Lyndon B. Johnson as saying, "one over half is all you need," and claims that he feels comfortable pursuing his campaign proposals. His 20-plus years in Springfield have also taught him that action is not assured unless he can convince lawmakers to support his proposals.

Edgar believes that the election gives him an absolute mandate to pursue and pass, as promised, the extension of the income tax surcharge. The surcharge extension turned out to be the key issue in the November campaign with Hartigan proposing to eliminate it and accusing Edgar of supporting tax increases rather than government economy. Edgar had in turn charged that without the surcharge, schools could not be adequately funded by the state. "I won with everybody knowing my position; nobody can be surprised on that one," Edgar says.

Supporting the surcharge is one thing. Getting lawmakers to

January 1991/Illinois Issues/13

pass it (and pass it by the three-fifths vote required by Edgar's promise to adhere to the failed Tax Accountability Amendment) is another. He insists the surcharge can be extended in part because of his victory: "There are a lot of legislators who might have had some doubts, but the fact I was elected and that was a central issue, I believe, will convince many of them that it's something they can support."

Passage will require three elements, Edgar says. First, the surcharge must be tied to education, where there is at least some support for higher taxes. Second, local governments will have to get some money, though perhaps not all that they get now from the surcharge. Finally, he says, there must be an element of property tax relief or reform in the package.

In Edgar's view the surcharge is not only doable, it is the only game in town. Arguably his campaign pledge to hold taxes at their current level would not be violated by a smaller increase of another tax, but Edgar says that possibility is not worth considering. "If we don't get the surcharge through, we're not going to get any other tax through. The easiest thing politically for this legislature to do is to make the surcharge permanent," he says.

With the prospect of a weakening economy, Edgar belief failure to extend the surcharge would devastate state program If the surcharge were allowed to expire June 30, that loss of revenue would trigger cuts in education, public aid, mental health and senior citizens' programs. Such cuts would make it hard to meet legitimate needs, he says. "There's no way you can make that amount of cuts without cutting into programs that I think everyone agrees are necessary."

Besides getting his people on board, Edgar's first priority for January is getting a handle on the state's fiscal condition. The governor-elect, acknowledging that the deteriorating fiscal situation was not something he had fore seen six months ago, now says that he wants to be sure the state has money to get through the last half of fiscal year 1991 which will end June 30, without borrowing against next year's revenue.

Edgar says that he is ready to move to trim spending as soon as he takes office if it proves necessary. In November he warned his transition team there was no money for new programs. He told them current spending may have to be cut.

Jim Edgar: not classic as politician
but 'natural' as governor

Class officer in second grade, student body president in college, virtually all 22 years of adulthood in state government: This classic political history is Jim Edgar's, which is odd, because Jim Edgar is not a classic politician.

Example: Gov. James R. Thompson, one of Illinois' great campaigners, downs shots with students in campus bars and marches in parades in a T-shirt and blue jeans. He once rode a horse in the Capitol Rotunda, and he opened the state fair each year by descending the giant slide with his giddy Big Jim smile. Jim Edgar, however, doesn't drink; and during this fall's campaign he took part in his college alma mater's homecoming parade clad in a suit and a tie. During a swing through western Illinois he got a little more casual —sweater, no tie — but when a supporter at a small rally held her baby up, Edgar shook the tyke's hand.

Example: Atty. Gen. Neil F. Hartigan won accolades in the campaign's final two months for his infectious enthusiasm, indefatigable pace and rip-snorting, lemme-at-em speeches, which ignited supporters and won over doubters by sheer force of emotion and will. Edgar's days, however, started later and ended earlier: He'd say, with no apologies, he's a person who needs his sleep. His speeches contain fewer peaks than speed bumps; when he's enthused, his high-pitched voice can sound shrill. He emits conviction but seems a bit stiff.

"I don't know if I took a personality test, it would come out that I'm a politician," says Edgar. "I'm just more of a reserved person. It took me a couple campaigns in the legislature before I would even go up and shake hands with folks."

This public demeanor does not, however, correlate to any similar timidity in private; it is hard to find someone who does not describe Edgar, 44, as genuinely personable and engaging. And if the public demeanor is politically unusual, his steady, two-decade ascent to the Executive Mansion looks as natural as his walking up stairs (or an escalator). Politics has always been Jim Edgar's pleasure, and timing has been on his side.

Edgar's parents had three children, all sons, of whom the governor elect is the youngest. Although his parents Cecil and Betty, marginal Democrats, were not particularly political, Edgar's interest in politics took hold when he was young and stayed.

Cecil, a small-business man in downstate Charleston, died in a car crash (not alcohol-related) when Edgar was 7; his mother worked and put the boys through school. After graduating in 1968 with a history degree from Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, where he lived with his mother at home, Edgar bucked mom's wishes and chose a legislative internship over law school. It was his preference, and he and his wife — a fellow EIU student, the former Brenda Smith of Anna — had recently become parents. Law school didn't pay; the internship did. His assignment to the staff of Senate President W. Russell Arrington, a Republican from suburban Chicago, brought the moderate Edgar firmly into the Republican party — and specifically into its moderate ranks. "Even though Arrington was a Republican, he was probably the most progressive guy in the legislature," Edgar says of the man he calls a role model. "He really believed that if there was a problem, the General Assembly stayed until they got it solved." That fall Illinois elected as governor a similarly progressive and even more politically moderate man — Richard B. Ogilvie. By spring, Edgar was "an Illinois Republican, locked in."

After the internship, Edgar remained as Arrington's personal assistant and later worked for House Speaker W. Robert Blair. In 1974 he made his first bid for public office — state representative from Charleston — and suffered his only electoral loss. He then sold insurance and cosmetics and worked briefly for the National Conference of State Legislatures in Denver. In 1976 he ran again for the House seat from Charleston and won.

(continued on page 15)

14/January 1991/Illinois Issues

the state's true fiscal condition will not become apparent until sales tax receipts come in from Christmas sales and December's corporate income tax payments are made.

Through November, state revenues had held to projections, but Edgar noted that welfare caseloads have been on the rise. "All predictions are — even though our economy is much stronger than other parts of the country — it's still going to get weaker before it gets better," Edgar says. He says he is prepared to ask for reductions in entitlement programs if that becomes necessary.

Other priorities for the new administration will include:

• Calling a promised special legislative session to deal with property taxes.

• Convening a conference on housing and creating a clean water and land use task force; both would fulfill campaign pledges.

• Concentrating on how the state can bolster the recycling industry so that there are markets for recycled products.

• Being ready to respond to economic development opportunities like finding a use for the soon-to-be-closed Chanute Air Force Base in Rantoul.

• Getting out and around in the state to avoid being isolated in Springfield or Chicago.

Edgar is cautious about identifying what he needs to accomplish in his first year. He says that citizens can measure him first by the people he brings to government. In his first year, he does believe that something must be done in the area of property tax relief or property tax reform. He would like to see greater public involvement in education.

Edgar's political judgment that a candidate's character is as important to voters as issues will provide a significant measure of his first year. Given his emphasis of character, how citizens perceive his performance becomes critical. Edgar is also a doer who wants to solve problems, but the doing invariably offends someone. Edgar maintains that voters will accept disappointments as long as he does not mislead people. Edgar can tout character, but voters get to judge it.

This transition from Republican to Republican could be intriguing with its parallels that go back more than 60 years. Gov. Emmerson took office in difficult times and ran afoul of the Great Depression. He was a one-term governor.

(continued from page 14)

Five months after Edgar's reelection to the House in 1978, Gov. Thompson named him his legislative liaison, and barely two years later, when Secy. of State Alan Dixon moved to the U.S. Senate, Thompson named Edgar to fill the vacancy. In 1982 and 1986, Edgar won the secretary of state's office on his own, taking care in the process to build contacts with local Republicans, something that Thompson won office without doing and never made a priority.

In Edgar's first term as secretary of state, he successfully sought a significant toughening of the state's drunk driving laws, stepping out early on an issue that quickly moved to the forefront nationally. He says his interest in this issue is due not to his Baptist teetotaling or to his father's death but to timing. It was a problem within his purview as secretary of state, and it dropped into his lap: The state police had completed a study on Illinois laws covering driving under the influence (DUI) of alcohol, and two Illinois newspapers had published series on DUI just before he took office.

In his second term he led the successful fight in the legislature for a bill, routinely defeated by the insurance lobby, to require drivers carry auto liability coverage. Edgar's Senate sponsor, Robert Kustra, now the lieutenant governor-elect, said the issue showcased Edgar's ability to negotiate with highly charged interest groups and both political parties. "It's never personalized [with Edgar]," Kustra says. "There isn't any stridency in his tone or his approach. He always manages to keep the conversation and the debate on a very even keel. He deals with people in subdued tones, and he doesn't excite or anger people with rhetoric."

Similar statements track Edgar's career: This unusual politician turns out to be a natural.

As Thompson's lobbyist: "Edgar had a clear sense of where the different interests stood, what kind of negotiating room you did or didn't have, what was important and what wasn't," says Art Quern, a former Thompson chief of staff. "He also had a surprising tough-mindedness that a lot of people didn't recognize he had because he's a very personable guy. He played the game hard, but within bounds.''

As a legislative intern: ' 'He was a decent guy to work with, neither arrogant nor a guy who's going to insist on his point of view,'' says David Epstein, a Democrat who interned with Edgar in '68. "He was a perfect gentleman. . . . But the reality in Illinois is it's a hardball state, and Jim Edgar knows how to play the game."

As a child: "Some kids are always the student council leader, student government leader," says Keith Ambrose, a high school teacher in Charleston who grew up two blocks from Edgar and one grade ahead of him in school. "One thing that impresses me about Jim — he doesn't change over time."

Relaxation for Edgar is reading history, especially historical biographies, or fiddling with his collection of stamps. He also enjoys a vigorous tennis match, and a fun evening is one spent with Brenda or the kids, eating pizza and renting a movie. "We don't socialize much. We don't belong to any country club, we don't go to parties — we get invited, we just don't go. It's not fun to me to go out for entertainment, go out and basically talk to a bunch of people. Occasionally I do; it doesn't happen too often."

But where Edgar is lax about simple acquaintanceships, he is punctilious about his family. "I never missed [a game of] Brad's, and I made most of Elizabeth's tennis games, far more than any other parent. I don't know anything that gave me more enjoyment in life than watching my son play football or basketball."

Brad, 23, was graduated from a Colorado college last spring, and Elizabeth, 17, plans to go out of state to college next fall; Brenda had opposed a run for governor before now because she didn't want the children stuck in the fishbowl of a governorship while in high school. The way it worked out, the timing was just right for Edgar:

Thompson decided to run once more in 1986 but not again in 1990.

The new governor says he wants to be a leader who can lead people where they don't want to go. Rhetoric, a skill Edgar admits can elude him, does not move people as well as it once did; persistence, which he feels he has in abundance, does move people. In the end, Edgar says, the most important factor in swaying the public today is for people to feel comfortable with you — feel you're sincere, real. That may sound odd, just two years after the end of Ronald Reagan's image-heavy, picture-perfect reign, but Jim Edgar is an odd politician. And he has an enviable history of good timing.

By Harvey Berkman, a reporter for Lee Enterprises in their Statehouse bureau.

January 1991/Illinois Issues/15

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