GUEST COLUMN • Illinois Needs Leadership–And Followership

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Politically, Illinois House Speaker and state Democratic Party Chairman Mike Madigan is a dead man walking. The recent ComEd admissions of a decade of bribery killed him.

And so, the struggle for new leadership is underway, mostly behind the scenes for the moment.

Madigan has more or less ruled the Legislature for four decades, so others are unpracticed at seeking and providing leadership. 

Madigan was a master at the care and feeding of his members, yet his personal objectives seemed to be those of simply amassing and holding power–staying at the helm. This, rather than spending that power in behalf of important policy objectives, such as creating a stable, balanced fiscal system. 

Indeed, he was scrupulous about protecting his members from having to make tough votes, which is one reason Illinois is now in a world of hurt, after decades of deficit spending. For Madigan, the needs of politics always trumped those of policy.

But it’s tough to put policy ahead of politics. Arguably the three most courageous governors in our state’s history were Thomas Ford (1842-1846), John Peter Altgeld (1893-1897) and Richard Ogilvie (1969-1972)–each lasted but one term. (See Robert Howard’s “Mostly Good and Competent Men: Illinois Governors,” for the detail.)

Winston Churchill didn’t stop Hitler by himself in 1940. Churchill and the English people did. Leaders require, obviously, courageous followers. Yet, for his leadership, the English turned Churchill out of office as World War II ended. They respected their leader, but they didn’t have to like the sacrifices he asked of them.

The next leader of the Illinois House will require two or more terms, if successful, to build anything close to power. In the meantime, she or he will need courageous followers. 

Illinois offers its leaders incredible strengths. Our combined transportation networks of interstates, railroads, air and water conveyance are the envy of the nation. Our top universities in Urbana-Champaign, Chicago and Evanston are world powerhouses of science and engineering. We have a high percentage of our population with college degrees. And as the commercial and financial hub of the Midwest, our location in the middle of the nation puts us in a sweet spot for economic activity.

Yet, Illinois is today, you might say, the “sick man” in the room, which others seek to move away from, literally, or avoid. This is largely because on taxes and spending Illinois has been kicking the can down the road for decades. As a result, we now have huge debts and unfunded pension costs that stifle our capacity to fix problems. We are at a “T” in the road. Add to that our reputation for corruption, which dampens interest in setting up shop in our state.

Illinois desperately needs transformative leadership–and followership. That’s a tall order. After all, a new speaker will be scrambling to learn the ropes, groping her or his way toward influence with colleagues. 

If Illinois turns one direction in the road at the T, we simply continue kicking the deficit-spending can down the highway, to further decline. If lawmakers turn the opposite way, we balance our budget, cut pension costs (for pension discussion, search the topic at jimnowlan.com), and recast our struggling post-high school education system into the best in the nation, as it was so considered as recently as 2000 by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education.

I found Gov. JB Pritzker’s “fair tax” lacking for several reasons, and not because it raised taxes, but because it did not raise enough revenue, necessary at least in the short term.

The public does not understand this, nor will it ever accept that we must impose some tax pain on all of us, at least in the short term, to straighten things out. 

So, any leaders and followers who take this budget-balancing turn at the T will run the very real risk of falling on their swords, as John Peter Altgeld did when he pardoned the innocent Haymarket protesters in the 1890s, and as Dick Ogilvie did when he pushed through the state income tax in 1969.

Leadership and followership in tough times ain’t easy. 

Jim Nowlan voted for the new Illinois income tax in 1969, as a freshman House member. A former senior fellow at the University of Illinois Institute of Government and Public Affairs, Nowlan has worked for three unindicted Illinois governors.

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