A freshman lawmaker sends an early warning signal
By CHARLES N. WHEELER III
Years ago, canaries were as much a part of the coal mining industry as blasting caps and safety lamps. Because of their greater sensitivity to poisonous gases, the birds served as an early warning device: If the canary collapsed, the miners knew to leave the area before the fumes did them in too.
No one would confuse Tinley Park Mayor Ed Zabrocki — a college classmate of this writer — with a small, yellow bird. But the freshman Republican's decision to resign the Illinois House seat he won last November provides disturbing evidence of just how noxious the political atmosphere has become under the Statehouse Dome.
In announcing his decision, Zabrocki said he wanted to return to his former post as a teacher and guidance counselor at Brother Rice High School in Chicago. But he also decried the all-pervasive partisanship and negative campaigning that marked his Springfield tenure, which he called "some of the most difficult times of my life." Now in his 14th year as mayor of Tinley Park, Zabrocki is no stranger to partisan politics. "But the extent of partisan politics as it exists at the state level is far beyond what I believed possible," he said.
In particular, Zabrocki was dismayed at the onslaught of critical mailings Democrats unleashed in his south suburban district from the time he took office in January. "We're down there working, and these hit pieces are coming out. And they have little relation to reality."
One mailing used a procedural roll call to accuse Zabrocki of failing to support truth-in-sentencing legislation; another attacked the GOP freshman as a double-dipper for continuing as village mayor, as lawmakers from both parties have done in the past. "I could understand that before the election," he said. "That was a legitimate concern, and it cost me some votes." Nevertheless, the issue was not enough of a concern for voters in his district to support his opponent. A third mailing labeled him a puppet of the DuPage County legislative leaders (swiping a page from the GOP playbook which routinely portrays suburban and downstate Democrats as tools of the Chicago Machine).
Zabrocki's resignation elicited derisive scorn among some of the more jaded Statehouse types. Hey, what did he expect? This ain't some junior high debating society, after all; it's hardball politics, Illinois-style. If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen, as old Harry Truman used to say.
Indeed, there's some truth in those observations; as it's currently practiced, Illinois politics is not for the faint of heart. Regrettably, it's also becoming less for those with a sense of fair play and a bent toward civility. But that's not the point. Recognizing the sorry level to which political discourse has sunk should not mean that one must accept it as an immutable fact of life. Instead, such an acknowledgement should be the first step on the road to restoring decency to the political process.
While Democratic partisans may gloat that their all-out assault on the enemy camp already claimed a victim, the casualty count is greater than a single state lawmaker. Wounded as well — and yet again — were public trust in the political process and government institutions.
Zabrocki's disenchantment with the Springfield scene parallels a general disdain for politics that pollsters find among average citizens. And while you'd expect a GOP lawmaker to lay the greatest blame on Democrats, neither party has a monopoly on saints or sinners.
No, virtue and vice are bipartisan, and one fears the latter has the upper hand at the moment. Consider the current climate in Illinois.
Campaigns are long, costly, bruising affairs. "It's obscene to spend $200,000 for a $46,000 job," Zabrocki said, roughly the overall cost of his 539-vote victory over former Rep. John R. Sheehy, a
6/September 1995/Illinois Issues
Tinley Park Democrat who dropped a like amount. That contest was "a very negative campaign," Zabrocki said, and indications are that 1996 "will be much worse."
In addition, legislative sessions now resemble extensions of the campaign. To an unhealthy degree, party leaders dictate strategy and control members votes on the basis of political interests, rather than the public good. Party agendas often reflect the concerns of special interests whose contributions fuel campaigns; those without such clout don't enjoy equal consideration. Too much time and energy is spent trying to promote one's own potentially vulnerable members or to embarrass targets in the rival camp. "It was a very hostile atmosphere," Zabrocki said. "The aisle [separating the two parties' seating in the House] was an abyss."
Thanks to single-member districts, meanwhile, rank-and-file lawmakers have less leeway to advance their own agendas; instead, on most controversial issues, the party line is gospel. Zabrocki and other south suburban lawmakers, for example, were turned down by party leaders when they tried to shield area school districts from inequitable treatment under a new law extending tax caps to Cook County.
Thus, it's no surprise that quality newcomers like Zabrocki, described by Daily Southtown reporter Rick Bryant as "a civics class prototype of the citizen-legislator," would find little appetite for legislative service. Unfortunately, diagnosing the condition is much easier than prescribing a remedy.
A good starting point, Zabrocki believes, would be campaign finance reform to rein in the expense of running for office, with its concommitant need to raise money from special interests. A shorter campaign season, through a September primary, would reduce costs and limit the window for direct mail attacks and negative broadcast spots.
Fundamental reform, however, won't come unless legislative leaders move away from their "win at all costs" mentality. Until then, legislative service will remain unattractive to the Ed Zabrockis of the state, and we'll all be the worse for it.
Charles N. Wheeler III is director of the Public Affairs Reporting program at the University of Illinois at Springfield.
September 1995/Illinois Issues/7