Legislative Action Special Section
Saving the Sox
When the General Assembly approved a package designed to build a new stadium for the Chicago White Sox, many saw it as an 11th hour move on June 30 to keep the American League team in the state. But the struggle to guarantee that prinicipal owners Jerry Reinsdorf and Eddie Einhorn would not move the baseball club to Florida merely came to a climax on or about midnight June 30 after two years of negotiating, business and politics.
In its 1986 fall session the General Assembly approved a package to build a new stadium. Chicago Democrats favored the plan, and Gov. James R. Thompson was able to convince Republicans to vote for it. Scheduled the same day for a vote was a new Arlington Heights Racetrack, important to the GOP, and Thompson warned his colleagues it would be difficult to get Democrats to support the racetrack if the White Sox package did not pass. Although the 1986 Sox package passed, the deal eventually lapsed because Thompson and then-Chicago Mayor Harold Washington could not agree on who would control the Illinois Sports Facilities Authority (ISFA), the agency created to build the stadium. With this failure Reinsdorf and Einhorn began serious negotiations with officials in St. Petersburg, Fla.
As this session of the General Assembly was beginning, the White Sox were close to an agreement with the Florida city, and the prospect of Chicago's losing the White Sox seemed real. Thompson sent his deputy, James Reilly, into the negotiations with instructions to come to an agreement. One week later, on May 11, a tentative agreement was reached with team owners. Almost immediately legislative approval of the package was linked to passage of a tax increase despite efforts to separate the two issues. "It's important for all the members to know that this will not take money away from schools, it will not take money away from kids, it will not take money away from mental health," Thompson said. "This is our baseball stadium; it will belong to the people of Illinois, not the White Sox; they're simply the tenants." House Speaker Michael J. Madigan (D-30, Chicago) also attempted to separate the issues, but in doing so declared no need for higher taxes: "The legislature is doing very well at this point in terms of reallocating the governor's budget to provide additional funding for education and mental health, so I don't see that there's any need to link those
Yet Madigan got commitments from 36 Democrats to vote for the White Sox package while it still seemed possible a tax increase might pass. Madigan said it was up to Thompson to secure 24 Republican votes for the package. A game developed between Thompson and Madigan, each blaming the other for a possible failure of the White Sox package. Although 36 votes is the normal House Democratic quota on controversial items, Thompson said Madigan needed to get more votes. "I hope he does as good a job in persuading suburban and downstate Democrats to vote for the White Sox as he has in persuading Chicago Democrats to vote for the White Sox," the governor said. "It's only natural that Chicago Democrats would vote for the White Sox."
While Madigan and Thompson were bickering over votes, Sen. Greg Zito (D-26, Melrose Park) came out with a plan to buy the team with state bonds and then sell stock to the public. Thompson said he would veto the bill if it were passed, hoping to discourage legislators from voting for it instead of his package.
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On June 27 Madigan told supporters at a Save Our Sox rally on the lawn of the Capitol that the Republicans would be at fault if the package failed: "I would encourage you to go talk to the other legislative leaders and to the governor. Ask them to do the same thing that Speaker Madigan has done and we'll keep the White Sox in Chicago." Thompson told the crowd the agreement was almost final and he was waiting for Reinsdorf and Einhorn to sign a lease. The governor urged the crowd to put pressure on legislators: "We've got a mighty selling job to do with people from downstate and the suburbs on the Democrat and Republican sides."
With time running out in the session, the lease signing ceremony was staged in Springfield June 29. Reinsdorf and Einhorn were there. To show the unified support for the package, Thompson had representatives of the four legislative leaders and a representative from Chicago Mayor Eugene Sawyer's office join him up front. "The details of the lease agreement are in place and must be considered by the General Assembly within the next 36 hours," Thompson said. If the bill had not been voted on by midnight June 30, it would have required an impossible three-fifths majority vote. One added detail in the lease assured minority contractors 25 percent of the construction work on the stadium, guaranteeing the support of most of the black legislative caucus.
In the afternoon of June 30 the Senate approved Zito's plan to buy the team, but no action was taken on approving the signed lease. At 5 p.m. Rep. Robert W. Churchill (R-62, Lake Villa), who handled the issue for House Republicans, told reporters he had only 5-10 committed votes. If the tax hike had been approved, Churchill said he would have had the 24 expected Republican votes.
Finally at 11:20 p.m. the Senate began debate on the package, with the House following about 15 minutes later. After the Senate debate, President Philip J. Rock (D-8, Oak Park) closed voting and announced the roll. There were 30 yes votes, the minimum required.
The pressure was now on the House as Thompson, Lt. Gov. George H. Ryan and members of Thompson's staff moved across the rotunda and began lobbying representatives on the floor of the House. Senators, having adjourned for the night, filled the rear of the House chamber. When the voting opened in the House several members did not register their votes on the electronic board. The voting was closed, thereby forcing representatives to declare their votes. The board showed only 54 yes votes, and 60 were required. The roll call was not announced, giving Thompson and other supporters time to convince reluctant representatives to change their votes. The clock on the vote board was switched off, so nobody could be sure of the exact time. Slowly six representatives, three from each party, asked that their votes be changed from no to yes. When the 60th vote was lit up on the board the vote was immediately announced, as well as the time of 11:59 p.m., although the printed roll call recorded the time at 12:03 a.m.
On July 2 the House voted to extend the deadline for the bill containing Zito's plan to December 8, 1988. If anything happens that would allow the White Sox to void the lease, Zito says he will attempt to pass his bill during the veto session. □
Brett D. Johnson
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