Professor of journalism at the University of Illinois, Urbana, he is a former city editor of the Champaign-Urbana Courier.

From gadfly to wheelhorse:
A profile of Harry Tiebout

Champaign County Democratic Chairman Tiebout may be the only philosophy professor in the country occupying such a position. He sees no conflict between his intellectual interests and his political activities. 'Someone,' Tiebout says, 'has to do the nitty-gritty'

IN THE LATE 1940's when young Harry Tiebout came to Champaign-Urbana fresh from Wesleyan University in Connecticut and from Columbia, he was known as a master of the brash statement and a devotee of the direct approach to social change.

Asked how he'd like his daughter to marry a Negro—presumed to be the $64 sociological question of that era—he answered that he'd prefer his daughter to marry someone of her own faith, regardless of race. He was active in a human relations group which by argument, sit-ins, and picketing had made it possible for Blacks to be served in most local restaurants. The spring of 1961 found him on the picket line before a department store urging the employment of one Black sales clerk, and writing byline pieces in an offbeat community newspaper demanding "an end to this rotten situation."

Not that many people in Champaign County, located in East Central Illinois, were surprised at this sort of thing from Tiebout. The county was traditionally conservative and for decades two-to-one Republican, and he was, after all, from the East and made his living teaching philosophy at the University of Illinois. But what is a little surprising is, in 1975, to find Harry Tiebout in his third consecutive term and his fifth year as chairman of the Champaign County Democratic Central Committee. It's an odds-on bet he's the only professor of philosophy occupying such a job in these United States.

Reasons for his switch
Why the switch, from activism to ultra-establishment politics? Tiebout, now approaching his 54th birthday, does not discount the passage of years as partial explanation. But he is not sure the switch is all that dramatic.

"There are three approaches to participating in government: party politics, issues, and pressure groups," he explains. "In the fifties, civil rights needed sit-ins and picketing. But then SNCC [Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee] and other organizations grew, and it seemed to me civil rights was going well, was on the road, and that a lot of people would carry on. Then, too, there probably is some exclusivity between these three approaches. Maybe when I was out on a picket line, I was being too 'visible' for someone trying to organize a party. If you stake out a rigid position, your effectiveness is probably hurt when it comes to rounding up a coalition that can win an election."

His view of a political party
Tiebout implies that the same problem can arise with the issue-oriented approach. "There can be two schools of thought. But I think now that a party should be a service organization—dig up candidates, support them, get people registered and to the polls. Issues are for individual candidates. Our county group did oppose high tension wires near Willard Airport [Champaign-Urbana], which was a controversial thing, and our city organization came out against Oakley Dam and for the Scenic Rivers Bill. If you can reach a consensus, okay—say maybe two-thirds of your membership. Otherwise issues can be divisive."

Tiebout (pronounced TEE-bo) is a medium-tall, trim-figured, quick moving man, who gesticulates as he talks. His voice speeds up, he raises both fists preparatory to slamming them on his desk to emphasize a point. But at the last moment the fists land muted—there's no big bang, which suggests a rather engaging quality: although he is enthusiastic and completely serious about politics, he doesn't take his personal enthusiasm or himself all that seriously. And this in turn

200/Illinois Issues/July I975

may help explain his successful evolution from gadfly to wheelhorse, a transformation not many have accomplished.

Tiebout sees a connection between his vocation in philosophy and his political interests, and this is not puzzling if one conceives of philosophy as a set of logically systematized concepts. He will happily sketch for you "Uncle Harry's chart of realpolitik," with two slightly overlapping circles—liberal and conservative—both mainly but not completely within "the viable center" of electability. For himself he favors the liberal and Democratic: "The Democrats are sort of populist, they seem to me more innovative, more concerned with social welfare and human values. I conceive of all our candidates having made a minimal commitment to this line." He believes that "the purpose of any society is the fulfillment and enrichment of human experience," that "the purpose of government is to help society attain this objective," and that "the purpose of political parties is to furnish a channel through which people can work effectively with government." And he speaks of academic influences: "There have been some books, of course — Veblen's Theory of the Leisure Class quite a few years ago, and then I was impressed by Sartre's play, Dirty Hands, which says someone has to do the nitty-gritty. Parties do that. They're the rational and efficient vehicles to implement social goals. "Anyhow, the party approach looked best to me, and I thought I should concentrate on the one approach which seemed most important."

The first moves
Tiebout and some other relatively youthful Democrats began to concentrate early in 1960. They elected some precinct committeemen, and Tiebout ultimately became chairman of the Cunningham Township organization in Urbana. They formed the Champaign county Democratic Club, issuing a brochure of high-sounding principles and aims. In the first half of 1960, they expended a good deal of energy trying fire up Adiai Stevenson's presidential candidacy, long distance. Then they turned their attention to the county organization, dominated at the time Leo Pfeffer of Seymour, who had served since 1952 as the district's single Democratic state representative. "The Democrats then were an apathetic bunch," a veteran Champaign-Urbana editor says. "They were interested only in what patronage they could get."

"At the beginning," Tiebout says, "we just tried to work into the Democratic organization as it was. There was no thought of taking over. But then we got to feeling that they were poorly organized, that not only did they have a strongly conservative tone but that there was no liberal input at all. And there were no financial reports. Our theme was 'better participation.' "

The Tiebout crowd got busy. "They substituted knocking on doors for apathy," says the editor. Of course they met hostility from the Old Guard. And, adds the editor, "they were viewed rather cooly by the old Democratic elite of this community—those people who'd held office during the Roosevelt years and their 'descendants.' " This latter group has given Tiebout's Democrats some financial support, but mostly the reform faction has had to go it alone. In the early sixties the going was tough; the reformers were outnumbered and sometimes outmaneuvered. "I remember one county meeting," chuckles a reporter, "that Leo Pfeffer chaired. At one point he said, 'Well, seems like there's two factions here; why don't you opposition people go up to another room to caucus?'

"So they did; but Leo had made them stand up and identify themselves as 'outsiders,' and the outsiders had to sort of shuffle out of the 'regular' meeting, and psychologically he'd got an edge. Leo won that round."

But the Young Turks hung tough. In 1964 and 1966 they tried to unseat Pfeffer as county chairman but failed. They were in good measure responsible, however, for Pfeffer's defeat for state representative in 1966, at the hands of moderate Democrat and now incumbent Paul Stone, from Sullivan in Moultrie County. In 1968 Tiebout ran unsuccessfully against Pfeffer's choice as his successor, Jack McHale of Ivesdale. But in 1970 Tiebout beat McHale 2,455 votes to 2,215, was reelected by a 3-to-l margin two years later, and without opposition last year.

Not a clown
"I suppose the old pols still regard Harry as a clown—'that university guy'," muses the reporter. "Harry's not a clown. He works. He's built a real organization, around the campus and in town mainly—not so much out in the county: young and youngish people, some students, some Blacks, some real bright women. He has ideas—the Democrats hadn't had an idea in 20 years when Harry came along."

So Tiebout has it made. But have Democrats really done any better in elections since he and his people came on stage? "Tiebout's bunch not only made it respectable to vote Democratic, they made it respectable to run Democratic," says the aforementioned editor. The typical Democratic ticket for 25 years after 1940 was an odd and sketchy affair: retired people without much to do, a few amiable eccentrics, almost no serious candidates. A newspaper deskman recalls a Saturday night phone call in the early fifties when a Democrat announced his bid for county office. A search of the paper's morgue disclosed that the candidate's only previous claim to public attention had been his indictment for selling black market auto tires during World War II. Serious candidates or not, Democrats invariably got beat 2-to-l in Champaign County.

That's changed. Perhaps the most recent striking example is last November's election of Helen Satterthwaite, now state representative along with Stone—and Republican John Hirschfeld—from the 52nd District. This was the first time since 1936 that Democrats took two of the three seats. Aided by cumulative voting, Mrs. Satterthwaite led all candidates.

But success did not have to await the widespread GOP miseries of 1974. On November 5, 1968, a bright, energetic young lawyer, Lawrence Johnson, was elected Champaign County's state's attorney, the first Democrat to win county office in more than 30 years. Observers attribute much of Johnson's 1,600-vote margin to the work the party did in the municipal areas of Champaign and Urbana. When Johnson was defeated by Republican Edward Madigan for Congress in 1972,

July 1975/Illinois Issues/201

'Harry's not a clown. He works. He's built a real organization. The Democrats hadn't an idea in 20 years when Harry came'

Johnson still carried Champaign County by more than 2,100: "The county organization helped greatly in both campaigns," he says. When Johnson became state's attorney, he brought from Cook County as his assistant a former law school classmate, a Black retired Army officer named James Burgess. In the election in which Johnson ran for Congress, Burgess succeeded him as state's attorney, the first Black ever elected to Champaign County office.

More for the Democrats
And consider the makeup of the County Board of Supervisors. In 1960 it was, as usual for those days, 21-6 Republican. After the 1972 election, it was 16-11 Republican, with three newly elected women Democrats—the first to hold such offices. Now the count is GOP, 14; Democrats, 13. Or look at the city council of Urbana, elected on partisan tickets. In the 1960's the old 4th Ward—hermetically sealed off by Republican-set boundaries—usually contributed one lonely Democrat. Now, in 1975, Urbana Democrat Mayor Hiram Paley presides over eight Democrats, four Republicans, and two Independents. Indeed, in the recent April election the Republicans for the first time in the city's history failed to offer a full slate.

Tiebout, at least publicly, derives no great joy from this last evidence of Republican discomfiture. "You've got to have a two-party system," he maintains. "I try to preach the gospel of the party system. After all, what's the alternative?" Tiebout not only values political parties, he values and likes politicians. "They're pleasant people," he says. "Successful ones have the ability to compromise; a sense of humility and of their own limitations; a tolerance for people as they are—people, in all their ambiguities and confusion." 

Tax relief for the elderly: How much and how to get it
AS MUCH AS $600 a year in tax relief grants is now available to senior and disabled citizens of Illinois under the Senior Citizens and Disabled Persons Property Tax Relief Act (the so-called "circuit breaker" law). Grants up to $500 were available under the original 1972 law to the elderly or permanently disabled who pay property taxes (or rent) on homes (including those in nursing and sheltered care homes). Recent additions provide between $50 and $100 more to these people—and now also to senior and disabled citizens who live in housing exempt from property taxes.

The new cash grants are based solely on the applicant's income. They were authorized by the legislature under Senate Bill 62, signed into law April 23 by Gov. Dan Walker as Public Act 797.

To qualify for the new, income-based tax relief, a person must:

(1) Have been 65 years old or permanently disabled on or before January 1.

(2) Have an annual household income of less than $10,000.

(3) Be a resident of Illinois at the time the grant application is filed.

These are the same basic requirements a person must meet to qualify for property tax relief. The one additional qualification for that program is that the applicant owe property taxes or have paid rent on a residence subject to the property tax or have paid privilege taxes on his mobile home residence. Because the first three qualifications are similar for both programs, anyone qualified for property tax relief is qualified automatically for a grant under the new program.

The new grants are figured by multiplying the amount of income by a percentage established by the new law for that income level. The multipliers and grant ranges for other income levels are:



    Grant Range


























Finally, there is a provision in the circuit breaker law which increases property tax relief for senior and disabled persons who rent their homes. Retroactive to the 1974 property tax year, this new section increases the amount of rent counted as the renter's property tax bill from 25 to 30 per cent.

But this part of the law does not become effective until January 1, 1976. As a result, renters' property tax relief this year will continue to be computed at the 25 per cent level.

The additional 5 per cent to which renters are entitled for 1974 taxes will be computed and added automatically to their property tax relief grants in 1976. The Department of Revenue, which administers the law, will compute renters' property tax relief payments at the full 30 per cent level after next, January 1.

One form, IL-1363, serves as the application form for both the property tax relief and additional tax relief programs. The form is available from the Department of Revenue, Circuit Breaker Section, Box 4017, Springfield, 111. 62708. Revenue Director Robert H. Allphin believes the single form may help get additional tax relief to senior and disabled persons who are not aware of the property tax relief program. If people filing for the income-based grant also owe property taxes and complete the questions related to them, the department will check to see whether they're eligible also for property tax relief.

Allphin said some people who had incomes of less than $10,000 did not qualify for property tax relief in past years, and he said the revenue department encouraged them to apply lor the new tax relief program. "The circuit breaker law provides for relief where property taxes exceed four per cent of the qualified applicant's income," he said. "If taxes didn't exceed $240 for the person whose annual income was $6,000, for example, he would not be eligible. But we urge anyone to re-appy since the new grant program does not require that the person have paid property taxes. Any Illinois resident who is 65 or older or permanently disabled and has an annual household income of less than $10,000 is qualified." 

202 /Illinois Issues/July 1975

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