Patrick Skarr, Account Supervisor
I recently had the fortune of attending a speech by Governor Jim Edgar on public service. He referred to his talk as “pontification from a retired politician,” but there was nothing pompous about his remarks. Rather, they were an inspirational reminder of the importance of solving problems through our legislative process.
Edgar shared a story about his experience working for W. Russell Arrington, the influential Senate Republican leader who is credited with the birth of the modern General Assembly.
In 1969 Republican Governor Richard Ogilvie faced a budget crisis that he planned to solve by raising income taxes. To accomplish this monumental task, he would turn to the Republicans in Senate who held a supermajority advantage at the time – oh how times change.
Chronicled in, Governor Richard Ogilvie: In The Interest of the State, the exchange about the tax increase legislation went like this:
“What fool in the Legislature,” asked Senate Republican leader W. Russell Arrington, “do you think you are going to get to sponsor the bill?”
“You, Russ,” replied the governor.
Following a moment of silence, Arrington reminded everyone present that he had strongly opposed a state income tax increase throughout his legislative career. Then, looking at Ogilvie, Arrington added, “But, if in your judgment, Governor it’s that time, then I’ll sponsor it.”
Later, after Ogilvie had made public his desire for an income tax, Arrington would tell listeners that he intended “to live up to my responsibility as a legislative leader. We may have resolved ourselves into a position to do things we may not want to do.”
In Springfield, Washington and across the country gridlock seems to be the modus operandi of our legislative system. This is reinforced in a press echo chamber that carries the following themes: the politics are too small, the news cycle is too vicious and our elected officials are too consumed with reelection to deal with the substantive issues of the day. No one takes accountability for the environment; it is just the system we’re currently stuck with.
In Illinois it is popular and easy to rebuff the top-down leadership of the state. A search for any news story about Speaker Mike Madigan or the final week of session will likely include terms like, “influential,” “taciturn,” or “powerful.” Nothing in the lower chamber moves without the acceptance and approval of the Speaker and that has translated into near absolute control of every level of government.
Ironically, U.S. Speaker John Boehner was just lampooned by POLITICO for failing to exert this type of leadership. In the article, “John Boehner’s shrinking power,” Boehner is criticized for preferring to sip wine with his conference rather than yield the Speaker’s Mace.
These divergent views of leadership and results lead back to Edgar’s talk and the purpose of leadership throughout the legislative process. He espoused that all legislative efforts should embody the following three tenets: compromise, civility and compassion.
With the appropriate balance of all three it is likely that major societal problems can be overcome. If any of the three are absent, chaos and inaction will reign, and real people, not just statistics, will suffer as a result.
Edgar shared a quote by Arrington that stuck with him through his distinguished career of service, “We’re here to solve problems, not play politics.”
Legislators are people, moved by stories about their fellow citizens and the persuasiveness of their leaders and colleagues. Whatever one thinks of dogmatic party leadership, look back at the episode of the income tax during Ogilvie’s administration.
With strong leadership and a vision for the future, the people and their elected officials will follow. There are only hours left in the spring session of the General Assembly and it’s unclear if we will see compromise, civility and compassion emerge.