Madeleine Doubek

Rich Williamson will be little more than a public face for the GOP

by Madeleine Doubek

What kind of Republican Party chairman will Rich Williamson be? Whatever kind Gov. George Ryan wants.

Williamson, the North Shore lawyer known to many only from his failed 1992 Senate bid against Democrat Carol Moseley-Braun, is, by title, the new leader of the Illinois Republican Party. But by title only. And even at that, he was the second choice for the post.

Ryan picked Williamson after botching an attempt to place Illinois House Republican Leader Lee Daniels of Elmhurst at the helm of the state party. The governor failed to find out whether Republican Senate President and DuPage County GOP Chairman James "Pate" Philip of Wood Dale would make the required move to name Daniels to the state party's central committee.

The public relations fiasco that ensued when Philip would not go along to get along could serve as an early object lesson for Williamson and the state's three top Republicans. They may all be from the same party, but each has an agenda that does not always mesh with the others'. The DuPage County duo of Philip and Daniels, in particular, has never been as close as their roles and geographic ties would indicate. In short, these GOP players need to learn to confer, even watch their backs.

Gov. George Ryan sees himself as the head of the state party, as do most Illinois Republicans,

Williamson will need to communicate most with Ryan, the man who is giving him an opportunity to reshape his image after one of the many sorry GOP Senate bids of the past two decades.

Williamson has some baggage. He made enemies when he worked in Washington, D.C., and alienated Illinois' social conservatives when he flipped on abortion in 1992, but none of that may matter much. The governor gave Williamson the job, but he may not give him much power.

Ryan sees himself as the head of the Republican Party, as do most Republicans. In fact, they may go right around Williamson directly to Ryan when they want something done in election cycles to come.

But if Williamson is little more than a public face for the party, it won't be the first time.

His predecessor, Harold Smith, quietly worked behind the scenes, adding a professional staff and a multi- million-dollar budget. He had enough independence to serve as emissary on occasion among warring Republicans. And he is owed a small part of the credit for a 1994 GOP statewide sweep.

But prior to Smith, the state GOP chairmanship was so low-key as to be almost nonexistent. Former chairmen Al Jourdan of McHenry and Don "Doc" Adams of Springfield kept the seat warm and left the heavy lifting to the party's true leader, then-Gov. James R. Thompson. Ryan intends to follow that model.

And he may have to do most of the fundraising for the party. Williamson struggled with that task in his 1992 race, and he simply doesn't have the big-money connections Smith did as the former chief operating officer of Illinois Tool Works.

Further, while Williamson brings perspective from having been a statewide candidate, it's likely Ryan, Philip and Daniels will want to control the shape of future statewide tickets.

The more immediate challenge is the 2000 election featuring only presiden- tial, congressional and legislative races. As minority leader in the House, Daniels will be the top Republican with the most to prove. Philip said what many in the GOP were thinking when he told Daniels to concentrate on winning the Illinois speakership rather than also serving as party chair. Last year, Daniels lost seats in the Lake and McHenry county suburbs that should be his, and he has managed only one term as speaker with a GOP-drawn political map.

Indeed, the 2000 election will deter- mine how the power is divided for the next go-round at political cartography. And Daniels frequently has relied on his mentor Ryan for financial and strategic support. The governor likely will feel more obligated to Daniels after both misplayed the chairmanship bid.

But the governor also will want to impress nationally with a win for Texas Gov. George W. Bush after Republicans wrote off Illinois in 1992 and 1996.

Williamson's job will be to help the governor make all of that happen. His role is more Ryan deputy than the leader of the Illinois Republican Party. 

Madeleine Doubek is assistant metro editor-projects & politics at the Daily Herald, a suburban metro newspaper.

Illinois Issues May 1999 / 41

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