Fifty years ago, Richard B. Ogilvie was elected governor of Illinois.
He faced a colossal financial crisis, just as we do today, so it is worth reviewing what he did to turn Illinois around. By enacting the state’s first income tax, he put the government on a sound financial footing. He also instituted important management reforms.
Though he did not win re-election, legendary newspaper columnist Mike Royko wrote, “Ogilvie built one of the nation’s finest state governments; he was the best man in Illinois government, maybe the best governor in the country.”
Ogilvie preferred executive management over electoral politics. His face creased by shrapnel that hit his tank in World War II, he couldn’t smile easily on the campaign trail, and he did not enjoy glad-handing.
He was a moderate Republican in the mode of New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller. Yet in the 1960s, Ogilvie was elected sheriff and then county board chair in heavily Democratic Cook County. He earned a reputation for crime-busting, efficient management and integrity.
Ogilvie realized he was inheriting a state government near bankruptcy. Illinois lacked an income tax, which virtually every other state had adopted. He knew proposing this new tax would turn his highly positive poll numbers around. In 1969, with some bipartisan support, he got it passed anyway.
The income tax enabled organizational reforms that have lasted to this day: Illinois established the first state Environmental Protection Board in the country. The Department of Corrections was entirely revamped. The Illinois Housing Development Authority and Department of Children and Family Services were strengthened. Ogilvie used the Bureau of the Budget, the first of his new agencies, to make the rest cost-effective and innovative.
One of the most basic reforms was the new state Constitution of 1970. Because the income tax had already passed, convention delegates were free to focus on less controversial issues such as municipal home rule, and state and local debt. How did Ogilvie achieve his goals?
He worked with individual legislators as well as their leadership, to be responsive to all parts of the state and its varied local interests. His personal availability and willingness to share credit, especially across the aisle, was intrinsic to his style of governing.
He worked with constitutional convention delegates of many persuasions. He quietly pushed for responsible Democrats in key positions such as the drafting committee to achieve a high-quality result. Secondly, he recruited talented young men and women who went on to serve in Congress, at top levels of the White House, as directors of national agencies and universities, and in civic leadership roles.
In his campaign for a second term, one of his themes was, “Do right and damn the odds.”
It almost worked.
As parks were renewed, highways rehabilitated, colleges and universities reinvigorated, and a first-of-its-kind, life-saving statewide trauma network was put in place, Ogilvie’s poll numbers moved slowly upward.
But not fast enough. Populist Dan Walker defeated Ogilvie in 1972 by a 51-49 percent margin. Walker’s campaign pollster recalled that daily tracking polls had showed Ogilvie steadily gaining on Walker: “If the election had been held three weeks later,” he said, “Ogilvie would have been re-elected.”
What could the Illinois governor elected this November learn from Ogilvie?
• First, conduct yourself with integrity and focus on making strategic differences.
• Second, recruit the best people you can to state service, even if they are young.
• Third, reorganize state agencies to be cost-effective now and innovative for the future.
• Fourth, work across the aisle to build bipartisan support.
• Finally, remember: You don’t have to be re-elected to be successful.
Chicago civic leader George Ranney helped create and served as deputy director of the Illinois Bureau of the Budget for Gov. Richard B. Ogilvie.
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October 18, 2018 at 04:03PM