Politics & Policy

Rage Against the Political Machine

Demonstrators protest against Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan in Springfield in January 2017. (Joshua Lott/Reuters)
Illinois is a solidly Democratic mess, but conservatives must get in the fight.

Exhausted by election season? Sickened by social-media rants? #NeverTrump? Ready to wash your hands of politics altogether?

Before you dip your hands in that wash basin, consider what happens when conservatives surrender the fight. Look no further than Illinois.

The state that was home to Abraham Lincoln and the birthplace of Ronald Reagan now sees residents flee at an alarming rate. From 2000 to 2017, Illinois lost a net of more than 1.3 million people to other states. The exodus is the largest outmigration crisis in the nation.

The state has accrued an unfunded pension liability of over $250 billion. Without meaningful reform, taxpayers and pensioners alike face a deeply uncertain future. A scenario worse than Detroit’s bankruptcy has not been ruled out. Instead of restructuring core systems, however, the state legislature enacts one tax hike after another.

Municipalities are struggling. Wealthy, WASPy Evanston, on the North Shore, is forced to consider police and fire layoffs to deal with its liabilities. At the same time, the predominantly black community of Harvey in the southern suburbs is contemplating municipal bankruptcy as pension debt mounts.

A criminally unfair property-tax system has Illinois families paying rates upward of double the national average. Residents are robbed of their home equity — and often forced out of their homes — to fund an inefficient, unaccountable government.

The state constitution has a balanced-budget requirement, but that has never stopped the Illinois General Assembly from enacting budgets loaded with accounting gimmicks and questionable revenue projections.

So far this year, nearly 2,600 people have been shot in Chicago, a sanctuary city inside a sanctuary state.

The Land of Lincoln has a public-school system that doesn’t educate or protect children. The National Assessment of Educational Progress has found that nearly two-thirds of Illinois fourth-graders do not perform at grade level in math or reading. And this year, the Chicago Tribune brought to light a report detailing over 500 cases of sexual abuse and rape in the Chicago Public Schools system.

Illinois is ranked among the worst in the nation in providing care to its most vulnerable citizens, the developmentally disabled, while tax dollars are spent funding abortion on demand.

“Business policy” in Illinois refers — almost exclusively — to heavy regulation and the occasional sweetheart deal or tax carve-out for politically powerful corporations. The same deals and carve-outs are unavailable to independent business owners.

The toxicity of the state government’s Springfield Swamp bubbled to the surface in the spotlight of the past year’s #MeToo reckoning. In October 2017, over 300 women working in state government signed a letter detailing the culture of harassment and abuse that exists in the Capitol. One by one, women came forward with damning personal testimony against their abusers — some of the most powerful men in Springfield.

Despite being blessed with rich and diverse assets, including an abundance of natural and energy resources — coal, nuclear, gas and oil, highly productive farmland, road, rail and air, prime geographic location, academic institutions, and one of the world’s major cities — Illinois is collapsing.

What happened? There has been no war, famine, or natural disaster. How does a state with so much to offer spiral into one of the nation’s largest economic and moral crises?

The Combine

Coined by Chicago Tribune columnist John Kass, “The Combine” refers to a bipartisan group of people who twist policy for their own personal gain. It includes public-sector unions and powerful special-interest groups, as well as a bipartisan group of bureaucrats and elected officials. The Combine enriches itself at the expense of others. Grassroot efforts to hold The Combine accountable fail because it has granted itself legal authority to do its dirty work.

The Combine dates back to the late 19th century, when a gambling-house owner named Michael Cassius McDonald established Chicago’s first political machine, a system of governance in which officials would distribute contracts, jobs, and social services in exchange for political support.

That system has been impeccably maintained, surviving even the most damning of federal public-corruption indictments. Instead of being an opportunity to advance a policy agenda rooted in first principles, winning elections is a means to distribute jobs, contracts, and other prizes to friends and political allies.

The results: powerful politicians, domineering special interests, a weak economy, and a demoralized citizenry.

Illinois Democrats Rule

Their numbers are legion, but you only need to know one name: Michael J. Madigan.

Madigan has served as the speaker of the Illinois House and the chair of the Democratic party of Illinois (DPI) for all but two years since 1983. In 2017 his caucus made him the longest-serving house speaker in the United States.

Under Mike Madigan, Illinois House rules have been written and rewritten to give the speaker power over all legislation in the House. As chairman of the DPI, Madigan controls all campaign funds for his caucus.

It’s a vicious cycle: Unions and special interests funnel money to Madigan. Madigan distributes funds to his members as he sees fit. Members cast the votes Madigan wants them to cast — typically favorable toward (you guessed it) unions and special interests.

The speaker, however, doesn’t just fund the campaigns of hopeful liberals; he destroys those who oppose him. Even good-faith Democrats understand it’s a far greater threat to cross Boss Madigan than to cross their constituents.

Illinois Republicans Surrender

Once the Illinois Republican party was ruled by “Combine Republicans,” such as Governors Jim Thompson, Jim Edgar, and George Ryan. (Fun fact: Jim Edgar is now consulting for Democrat J. B. Pritzker’s campaign for governor.)

Current Illinois Republican-party leaders, however, have managed to further discourage conservative voters. Lacking the potency of “Combine Republicans,” House minority leaders Tom Cross and Jim Durkin have been ground into “Surrender Republicans.” Interested primarily in holding on to their own seats, and lacking any discernible driving principles, Republican leaders in Illinois simply lie down — surrender — to avoid drawing the wrath of Madigan and his political machine.

In 2012, under Minority Leader Tom Cross (R., Oswego), the Illinois House moved into the super-minority. Since Jim Durkin (R., Western Springs) assumed the title in 2013, what’s left of the caucus has fallen apart: Nearly one-third of House Republicans voted for the largest structural income-tax increase in history. Many voted for a bailout of Exelon as well as an anti-business, anti-Second Amendment gun bill. Durkin joined nine other Republicans in voting for the pro-abortion Equal Rights Amendment. And only a few House Republicans have been willing to tackle structural or entitlement reforms.

In 2014, Illinoisans, hungry for a conservative policy revolution like those playing out in neighboring states, took a chance on Bruce Rauner. Politically untested, Rauner was a successful businessman who promised to “Shake Up Springfield” with his “Illinois Turnaround.” The pro-choice Republican also swore to voters that he had no social agenda.

In the end, Rauner betrayed every promise he made. He didn’t enact even one of his 44 promised reforms. He bailed out Chicago pensions on the backs of suburban schools. He bailed out public-utility companies on the backs of ratepayers. He enacted sanctuary-state legislation. And, the knife in the heart of his conservative base, Rauner made Illinois the first state in the nation to force taxpayers to fund abortion on demand.

His constant excuse: “Madigan.” Rauner even went so far as to declare to reporters, “I am not in charge. I’m trying to get to be in charge.”

The Future of the Illinois Republican Party

Today we will almost certainly see the election of Democrat J. B. Pritzker over Bruce Rauner. Illinois Democrats will once again control all three branches of state government.

The election raises serious questions about the future of the Illinois Republican party. Has too much been lost? Will we go the way of California and have uninterrupted one-party rule?

Illinoisans are not Californians. They are practical and productive Midwesterners. They are ready for property-tax relief and common-sense solutions to the state’s pension crisis. The Republican party, however, has inspired little confidence that it can deliver.

Many found a glimmer of hope for a robust and competitive ILGOP in the 2018 candidacy of State Representative Jeanne Ives (R., Wheaton), who mounted a primary challenge against Rauner. In just four months, with no money or name recognition, Ives moved over 40 points to come within three points of ousting the incumbent billionaire.

Ives’s candidacy demonstrated that Illinois Republicans gain ground quickly when they engage in ideological confrontation on cultural and economic issues.

Speaker Madigan and his machine may be powerful, but they are wholly unaccustomed to such confrontation from their Republican counterparts. Their ability to handle such an attack has never truly been tested.

ILGOP flacks might brush off the suggestion as “far-right extremism,” but Illinoisans know the difficulties they’re facing. For many, exhausted by the state’s onerous tax burden, lack of opportunity, and moral libertinism, an ILGOP with a strong contrasting vision, adherence to principle, revolutionary instincts, and simple grit would offer reason for optimism.

There are no guarantees. But as conservative talk-show host Dan Proft puts it, “As long as we’re still here, we might as well fight.”

In Illinois, conservatives have to embrace these challenges for the opportunities they must be. Nationally, the revolt against the big-government “swamp” has been messy. But the ground we now hold is precious. If Illinois offers any lesson to conservatives, it is this: Never Surrender.

Kathleen Murphy Kathleen Murphy is the director of communication at the Illinois Opportunity Project. She was the director of communication and spokeswoman for Jeanne Ives's insurgency campaign for governor of Illinois in the 2018 primary.

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