A modern political primer

A quarter century ago, succeeding in state government depended on making good connections. Things have changed, right? So how does one get ahead in politics these days? Here's a skeptic's view

Essay by John Dowling

Hire a well-connected lobbyist. Write checks to the right campaigns. Pass a bill, get a contract. Prosper. Hitch to the right politician's star, maybe run for office. Get jobs for friends, build an organization. And watch business blossom. Be in demand as a partner in some venture that depends on the good will of government. Perhaps move on to a lucrative career as a lobbyist, consultant, rainmaker.

Is that all there is? Of course not. Thousands of Illinoisans who served in government in the past quarter century went home with no more reward than a paycheck and the knowledge that they made life a little better for their neighbors. Thousands more put their shoulders to the wheel of politics in large or small ways, hoping only that they could help steer Illinois government to do, as best they saw it, the right thing.

But it's hard to wave the skeptic away altogether; one needn't dig deep into recent history to build the case. Racetrack bailouts. The MSI scandal, in which Gov. Jim Edgar's most generous campaign contributors received an exorbitantly lucrative state contract. Judges raising campaign funds from the lawyers whose pleadings they hear. Unabashed, systematic hiring based on political loyalties. Scholarships handed out by lawmakers to students with political connections. State contracts and grants for campaign contributors and the friends of the powerful. Lifestyle upgrades for public officials, bankrolled by campaign funds and lobbying groups. A casino industry, created by legislative fiat, making millions for influential investors. Respected elder statesmen hired to push bills tailored to benefit a handful of businesses. Hours and hours of legislative sessions spent jousting under the colors of trade-group patrons.

No doubt that list falls short of a complete summation of 25 years' worth of Illinois government and politics, but it is evidence of an enduring quality of our political life: that it often has the appearance of a complex web of "what's in it for me" transactions aimed primarily at enhancing the wealth, power or electoral longevity of those who can acquire enough chips to command a seat at the bargaining table.

This is hardly new; competition among special interests has always been part of politics. Nor is it entirely unique to Illinois. It's remarkable mostly because it has flourished here in an era in which such transactions have come under unprecedented, critical scrutiny in this country. Even in what should have been a hostile environment, Illinois has done for this kind of politics what Henry Ford did for the manufacture of automobiles: institutionalized it, engineered it ingeniously, practiced it on a grand scale.

In the age of the sound bite, we need a catch phrase. So call it "purchase politics."

This brand of governing has endured in Illinois in a time when so much else has changed. The tectonic plates of regional power have shifted away from Chicago and downstate Illinois and toward the suburbs. Women and racial minorities have gained stature not just as voters to be courted but as political players in their own right. A global economy poses new challenges to the state's ability to foster an economic climate that is both attractive to businesses and fair to individuals. Party organizations are increasingly irrelevant, eclipsed by the personal organizations of the politicians at the top of the heap.

Other changes have infused new life into purchase politics. As television advertising has become ever more central to campaigns, so has the question of who will pay for the ads. Running campaigns and influencing government have become industries in themselves, with little interest in changing the environment in which they have sprouted.

The 1980 constitutional amendment that created single-member districts in the Illinois House, in place of the three-

24 / October 1999 Illinois Issues

member districts that often left room for a Democrat to win on Republican turf, or vice versa, was a misfired populist missile if there ever was one. It all but lowered the curtain on the days when significant numbers of maverick legislators could chart a course without much worry as to how their votes would be received by party leaders or PAC contributors. In its place we have platoons of entrenched incumbents, a handful of contested races in which candidates depend on massive infusions of special-interest cash often channeled through legislative leaders, a General Assembly where control of the fate of legislation is so concentrated that the body's membership usually seems to shrink to three or four by the end of the session.

Recent years have seen some nibbling at the edges of the "what's in it for me" culture. Gifts to public officials have been limited, some fundraising activities have been curbed, disclosure of lobbying activity and campaign contributors' identities have been amplified. But the essential pipelines between government and special interests remain open. And even change that can stake a legitimate claim to the term "reform" sometimes has a purchase price of its own. Passage of a ban on the personal use of campaign funds came only after proponents agreed to a "grandfather" clause: Politicians could still convert for personal use an amount equivalent to their fund's balance at the end of June 1998. A handful even took out loans to add to their campaign funds, inflating their potential nest eggs.

Purchase politics has been a means to political longevity, and the longevity of its leading practitioners probably has helped the culture endure. Consider how many of Illinois' most durable political leaders of the past quarter century have been master brokers above all else, people known not so much for advancing a set of beliefs as for accomplishments, including simply staying in power. And consider how long they've stayed: just three governors in 22 years, one personnel change in legislative leadership in a generation, one mayor in Chicago for 10 years and counting. When you're on top, why monkey with the system that put you there?

If circumstances limit your political purchasing power, watch out. Jim Edgar came to office with patronage, the practice of politically motivated hiring and firing, presumably curtailed by the U.S. Supreme Court. Facing an empty treasury and disinclined to wheel and deal, he has been labeled in some quarters as a governor who had little to show for eight years in office beyond a balanced budget. But George Ryan, with a skill and zest for legislative horse-trading and an overflowing treasury augmented by massive borrowing, was hailed as the master of the legislature after just five months in office. Might Ryan have been so successful so soon partly because he was able, and willing, to hand out chips on an unprecedented scale?

And is that altogether a bad thing? Certainly, measures to advance the public interest are often greased by the inclusion of goodies dear to special interests. In the culture of purchase politics, the pragmatic politician's surest strategy to do good for the state as a whole may very well be to find out what those whose support is essential want for themselves or their friends. Working within the culture at least offers the prospect of accomplishing something tangible, hopefully before the next election. Principles or no principles, how far or fast can you go when you're swimming upstream against a strong current?

But in a democracy, good government hinges not only on what things government does but also on how it does things. What the people being governed think of their government is vital to the equation. Engaged voters are the great brake on purchase politics; as voters disengage, special interests naturally fill the vacuum. If those voters see government as a club operated by and for the benefit of a very limited membership, why would they consent to fork over more of their earnings in taxes? Why vote? Why participate in any way?

It's hard to imagine a more frightening consequence of the nitty-gritty practice of modern Illinois politics. 

John Dowling, Illinois news editor for The Associated Press, covered state government and politics in Springfield from 1984 to 1991.

Illinois Issues October 1999 / 25

|Back to Periodicals Available| |Table of Contents| |Back to Illinois Issues 1999|