Communication breakdown

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Rep. Guzzardi says Fair Tax proponents didn’t articulate need for revenue and how it would ‘help people’s lives’

State Rep. Will Guzzardi says the Fair Tax Amendment faced strong political headwinds, but proponents also could have made their message clearer in making the case to voters. (BlueRoomStream)

State Rep. Will Guzzardi says the Fair Tax Amendment faced strong political headwinds, but proponents also could have made their message clearer in making the case to voters. (BlueRoomStream)

By Ted Cox

State Rep. Will Guzzardi looks back on the election of a month ago and sees that Democrats in general and the Fair Tax Amendment in particular were bucking national trends that turned out to be overwhelming.

“If the Fair Tax had gotten the exact same share of the vote as Joe Biden got in Illinois, it still wouldn’t have won,” Guzzardi said this week in a phone interview. “This was a huge, monumental task, and I think that we fell short in a number of ways.”

Just Tuesday, the state representative from Chicago’s Logan Square community was posting a Twitter thread focusing on why Democrats didn’t do better on down-ballot races even in suburban districts Biden won. “Those were just Republicans who didn’t like Donald Trump, I think,” he said. But it also reflected the current turbulence in the U.S. political system.

“There’s political realignment happening all over the country right now,” Guzzardi said. “And I don’t think it bodes well for Democrats in downstate Illinois outside the Metro area” across the Mississippi River from St. Louis. In fact, one political analyst executed a series of maps after the election, reprinted by Rich Miller’s Capitol Fax, showing how the southern and central parts of the state — everywhere outside Chicago, the collar counties, and college towns, basically — have grown deeper red just in the 24 years since U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin was first elected to statewide office.

“We’re losing downstate, but we’re making deeper inroads into the suburbs,” Guzzardi added. He cited how Biden won DuPage County handily, even as Trump increased his votes from 2016, and only narrowly lost McHenry County — “wild stuff,” Guzzardi said.

After all, even though the “blue wave” didn’t materialize nationally, Democrats did maintain supermajorities in both houses of the General Assembly. Yet none of that explained the loss of the Fair Tax Amendment, which not only didn’t match Biden’s majority across the state, it didn’t even gather a majority at all, while needing a 60 percent supermajority to alter the state constitution to permit a graduated income tax. Guzzardi wasn’t using that national trend in the time of Trump as an excuse either, clearly laying bare the missteps he perceived.

“I think we didn’t communicate effectively with voters,” Guzzardi said. “We didn’t tell a clear story about why we needed the money and what we were going to spend it on to help people’s lives. I think we didn’t tell people where to find it on the ballot.

“We didn’t do a good job of pointing people in the right direction,” he added. “And we didn’t really start communicating with voters at all in a serious way. We let a year go by without campaigning at all on the question” after the General Assembly approved the progressive income tax in the spring of last year and passed the ballot initiative on to voters.

Most disturbing, however, was the way the anti-tax TV campaign bankrolled by billionaire Kenneth Griffin gained traction with voters on the issue of “trust” in government.

“I also think we have a credibility problem, a trust problem,” Guzzardi granted. “Illinois voters really responded to the ‘no’ messaging about this campaign. ‘You can’t trust Illinois Democrats with your money.’ And that’s a real problem for us. And it’s going to hinder our ability to solve the state’s challenges going forward. So that’s something we really have to take a hard look at.”

Guzzardi recently did another series of tweets pointing out how more well-to-do areas of Chicago voted for Biden only to turn around and reject the Fair Tax Amendment — even as the city as a whole was the only area to endorse the amendment by more than 60 percent. He didn’t see those areas crassly voting in their own self-interest so much as he found it reflective of contradictions in the urban electorate. He called them “folks who voted for Joe Biden and believe in gay marriage and social justice, but to talk about income inequality is still a little too much for them.” He pointed out that Chicagoans across all races and classes generally have little problem advocating for both social justice and the police. It’s not a cases of either/or for them politically.

Residents in rural Illinois, however, clearly did vote against their own self-interest in rejecting the progressive income tax. They again fell prey to outright charges and more subtle insinuation about big government, people of color, and Chicago. “That story is used to very divisive effect,” Guzzardi said. “‘The corrupt Chicago Democrats want to take your money and spend it on their people.’” Even as studies have found southern and central Illinois get back much more in funding than the tax revenue they put in, with Chicago and the collar counties footing the bill.

“We could have told a very compelling story in central and southern Illinois,” Guzzardi insisted. “This is a huge windfall for those communities, but again we didn’t say where we were going to put the money.” Say, perhaps, with the first $1 billion to be allotted directly for early childhood education across the state: that might have enticed voters to support it. “We weren’t able to make that case.

“Do Democrats need to do better about messaging to rural communities?” Guzzardi said. “There’s no doubt in my mind that the answer to that question is yes. But that’s a much larger structural question about our party and all the crossings of race and class and wealth and poverty. There’s a lot going on there. So I wouldn’t have expected us to win the Fair Tax by reversing all those national trends.”

Which brings us to House Speaker Michael Madigan.

“It’s hard to have an honest and complete assessment of this past election without thinking about the speaker,” Guzzardi allowed. He figured in attack ads on the Fair Tax, Supreme Court Judge Thomas Kilbride, and U.S. House candidate Betsy Dirksen Londrigan, among many others. And while attack ads using Madigan had relatively little effect two years ago, it was a different story this election cycle after he was named in the federal ComEd bribery probe that broke last summer.

The “trust” issue resonated after that, even as the General Assembly has seen abundant turnover just in the last few elections. “Next year will be the beginning of my fourth term, and I’m going to be in the top third in seniority,” Guzzardi said, “so a ton of turnover.” Yet voters still bought the argument that they couldn’t trust Springfield, even as this General Assembly little resembles the legislature of 20 or 25 years ago.

Guzzardi explained, “Voters still see the same leadership at the top, and it looks to a lot of voters like Madigan’s been the speaker since time immemorial, so what’s really changed?”

If Democrats in the General Assembly want to make the case that they’re different from pervious generations of Illinois politicians, it looks increasingly as if there will have to be a reckoning on the House speaker. In any case, it seems increasingly clear that corruption is a focal point for a general distrust in government.

“People are frustrated and rightfully so about what government isn’t doing for them,” Guzzardi said. “So I think if we’re going to ask people to vote on a referendum to raise a bunch more money, we need to be clear with people about what that’s going to mean.” A balanced budget remains a key issue for many voters across the state. “People have the sense that the state’s finances are out of whack,” he added. So insist any added revenue will stabilize that budget, solidify public education, and so on.

Anger and frustration are keenly felt in the current political environment. “That’s very real, and I think you see it at every level,” Guzzardi said. He wondered aloud “how we can capture that, capitalize on it, and point it in the right direction.”

Guzzardi suggested focusing on corruption in Wall Street, big tech, Big Pharma. “That’s what we should be mad about,” he said. “And government’s like the only guy in our corner that can stand up to them. So I think that if we can tell that story more effectively that’s going to be very helpful on policy.”

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December 9, 2020 at 05:40PM

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