Jim Dey | Ex-governor’s public silence foreshadows GOP’s doom

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Former Gov. Jim Edgar’s endorsement once was — and probably still is — worth a lot to many Republicans running for office.

Thanks to his refusal to authorize spending money the state didn’t have during his tenure from 1991 to 1999 and a strong economy under President Bill Clinton that generated substantial revenue growth, Edgar balanced budgets and left office with a substantial cash reserve in the bank. He even tried — but failed — to get the Legislature to address what was then a growing — but not suffocating, as it is now — underfunding problem plaguing the state’s public pensions.

That may seem like relatively small potatoes in terms of fiscal stewardship — after all, it was just an uncommon display of common sense.

But at least in hindsight, Edgar comes across as Illinois’ version of Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan all rolled into one.

That’s why it was no great surprise that back in 2014, when Bruce Rauner was running for governor against Democratic incumbent Gov. Pat Quinn, the GOP challenger, like many others on the GOP ticket, sought Edgar’s endorsement.

At first, the former governor demurred, telling Rauner that because “I don’t know you,” an endorsement would be premature. Later, Edgar satisfied himself that Rauner’s campaign was worthy of support.

Flash forward four years — who is Edgar endorsing in the 2018 race between Rauner and Democratic challenger J.B. Pritzker?

Let’s put it this way — Edgar is not endorsing Rauner for re-election. According to news reports, he’s not making a public endorsement in the governor’s race. But he is coaching Democrat Pritzker behind the scenes while publicly expressing confidence in Pritzker’s ability.

What’s the problem this time around?

Edgar has two big problems with Rauner’s governance — substance and style.

He was adamantly opposed to the two-year budget standoff between Rauner and Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan. He made it no secret that he felt it was the governor’s job to reach an accommodation with the Legislature.

Rauner’s refusal was understandable — in summer 2016, Madigan offered him a take-it-or-leave-it deficit budget that would require tax increases to bring into balance.

Despite that, Edgar said publicly that a state budget is too important not to have in place because it was too disruptive to core state programs. Besides, he said, the governor has ample power under the Illinois Constitution to oversee policy changes elsewhere in state government.

Rauner, of course, did not agree — he was determined to force Madigan and the majority Democrats in the House and Senate to accept policy reforms and spending cuts in exchange for the tax increase they desperately sought.

Ultimately, Madigan won the budget battle of wills hands down — he passed a Democratic budget that included an increase in the state income-tax rate from 3.75 to 4.95 percent — while rejecting spending cuts and all of Rauner’s proposed reforms.

Whatever the wisdom of engaging in the showdown with Madigan, losing was not an option for the GOP — either politically or policywise.

In the end, it was game, set and match for the all-powerful Madigan, who once again demonstrated that he’s the straw that stirs the drink in Springfield. On the things he cares about, Madigan rules.

That, of course, leads to Edgar’s second problem with Rauner.

The governor for years has made no bones about his disdain for Madigan. Everything about Madigan’s unquenchable appetite for power, perks and patronage turns the governor’s stomach.

At the same time, Madigan makes no secret of his contempt for nonpolitician Rauner — it’s a mutual lack-of-admiration society.

Edgar considers it a big mistake for Rauner to be publicly critical of Madigan, someone with whom Rauner must work, whatever his personal feelings about Madigan’s approach.

One could argue about that. But there’s no question that relations between Rauner and Madigan — two very different people with very different value systems — are poisonous.

Each man would like to have the other’s head on a pike.

Since that’s not legal, even in Chicago, the two men are left to battle it out.

To counter the multi-millionaire Rauner’s financial advantages, Madigan found himself a multi-billionaire to run for governor and finance Democratic Party campaigns from top to bottom.

The polls indicate Pritzker will win the Nov. 6 election. If that happens, Republicans will once again be irrelevant in Illinois — as they were from 2003 to 2015 — non-entities who can only sit and watch a Democratic governor and a Madigan-led Democratic Legislature act as they see fit.

That Edgar apparently prefers that to the status quo speaks volumes about how he — a highly successful, professional politician — views the tenure of the Republican businessman who thought he was skilled enough to change the direction of Illinois.

Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached at jdey@news-gazette.com or 217-351-5369.

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September 25, 2018 at 07:07AM

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