Jim Nowlan, Guest Columnist: Edgar Fellows – followers or leaders?

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Former Gov. Jim Edgar has created a program that might be the last great hope for struggling Illinois, yet his Edgar Fellows Program has yet to prove its potential. I propose that the nearly 400 Fellows take on the task, never before tried, of building a strong future for Illinois. The challenge could determine if these young politicos are leaders or followers.

Annually over the past decade, Jim Edgar has gathered 40 of our state’s best and brightest in Urbana for an intensive week of policy seminars with top national figures and experts. Maybe even more valuable, there is important after-hours social bonding among young men and women across both parties and all regions of the state.

The Fellows, mostly young legislators or wannabes, feel good about themselves for having been selected, and for rubbing shoulders with biggies, but are they really going to become transformational leaders?

After all, most elected officials are, by the nature of the democratic process, followers not leaders. That is, they have to be elected and re-elected — fail to reflect the often-shortsighted wishes of their constituencies, and they might find themselves out of office.

Indeed, four of our greatest Illinois governors never bothered to serve in the Legislature, and they lasted only one term each — leadership has its costs. Thomas Ford (1842-1846) ensured that the state pay off massive debt; John Peter Altgeld (1893-1897) championed higher education and pardoned, hugely unpopular of him, anarchists who had been railroaded toward the gallows; Frank Lowden (1917-1921) modernized state government, and Richard B. Ogilvie (!969-73) enacted an income tax.

So, are today’s up-and-comers more interested in making careers out of partisan politics, or in making a difference, damn the consequences?

After all, Illinois should be an economic dynamo. As I keep quoting successful friend Jim Schultz of Effingham, in each of the five R’s critical to economic development — rails, roads, runways, rivers and routers — Illinois ranks among the top three American states. And we are located right in the middle of the world’s largest market! Yet, Illinois is “the sick man” of Midwestern states, the only one losing population. Shame on our “leaders.”

Our problems are fixable: fiscal instability and debt; an unbalanced revenue system too reliant on the property tax; a national perception for being a corrupt state, and a mediocre K-12 education system.

These challenges won’t be solved in a year or two, yet that is exactly how elected officials approach our problems. Each biennium, Illinois lawmakers introduce 6,000 or so bills; this potpourri of policy ideas becomes in effect the sum total of our state’s long-term thinking

The lawmaker/Fellows can either return to business as usual, that is, to a post-Mike Madigan lawmaking process that appears as polarized, atomized and small-minded as it was before the speaker was dethroned this past year.

Then again, they might create something like an Edgar Fellows Future of Illinois Coalition. The Fellows could hold a plenary gathering each year, break up into task forces, issue nonpartisan action platforms — and provide the leadership to enact them.

Or, the Fellows can be followers, which is much safer politically. The Edgar Fellows need to step up.

Jim Nowlan is a former state legislator and aide to three unindicted Illinois governors. A retired professor of American politics, he writes a newspaper column on Understanding Illinois.

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August 20, 2021 at 10:30PM

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