Thursday, August 14, 2008

Where's the Party?

The Illinois State Fair kicked off the political campaign season, with Democrats and Republicans rallying on the fairgrounds for the past two consecutive days. They’re rearing up for national conventions at the end of this month and beginning of next. Illinois Democrats hope to ride the coattails of the presumptive presidential nominee, U.S. Sen. Barack Obama, a Chicago Democrat, but that doesn’t mask the divisions of state party leaders. The Illinois GOP has an opportunity to win over disgruntled voters frustrated by the Democrats in power. On the other hand, the party recognizes the challenge of gaining momentum while the “Obama factor” is anticipated to draw a record number of Democrats to the polls November 4.

The strengths and weaknesses of each party were on full display during their State Fair rallies.

On a packed lawn, Democrats had a huge draw to hear New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, former presidential candidate with a national and international resume. He’s now a hard-core Obama supporter, visiting Illinois to support Obama and U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin.

Richardson substituted the words “dynamic” and “diverse” to replace the word “dysfunctional” when describing the Illinois Democratic Party. He downplayed internal tensions by saying: “I’m a governor. I have, with my legislature, differences. There’s that control tension that I think is healthy in a democracy.”

But state Comptroller Dan Hynes, a Democrat, indicated he thinks the tension is suffocating rather than healthy. He cast a harsh light on the party leaders while speaking at the Democratic County Chairmen’s Association Wednesday morning, saying the existing state of affairs in Illinois represent “the worst of times.” He cited this year’s $1.4 billion in budget cuts that cripple state services and said it’s not a policy problem, it’s a personality problem personified by power clashes between the governor, Senate President Emil Jones Jr. and House Speaker Michael Madigan.

The division carried over that afternoon to the State Fair during Governor’s Day (a.k.a. Democrat Day). The only other statewide officeholder to attend was Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias. Hynes didn’t attend. Neither did Madigan, Attorney General Lisa Madigan, Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn or Secretary of State Jesse White.

The front of the audience was filled with busloads of supporters holding blue signs that said, “Pass the jobs bill today.” But when the governor rose to speak, members of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union booed and waved green picket signs that read, “Governor, don’t cut our health care.” They chanted as they passed through the audience, interrupting the governor’s speech.

The boos faded as AFSCME employees exited the lawn, and they were replaced with cheers as the governor yelled over the commotion: “I would ask our friends in AFSCME to join us in our crusade. They’re going to keep their jobs. They’re going to keep their health care, but now start helping us create jobs for other people and provide health care to other people across our state.”

He later said AFSCME was just using a political ploy to draw attention during contract negotiations with the administration. Union members argue that the cost of their health insurance continues to increase while their wages and their manpower is stagnant, at best.

Republicans aren’t much better off. While they have ripe opportunity to take advantage of the unpopular Democratic governor and the Democratically controlled legislature, GOP candidates have an obvious uphill battle to grab attention and prove their relevancy as an option for disgruntled voters.

The GOP leaders were quick to point out, however, that the Democrats didn’t even have their state party chair, Michael Madigan, present. The GOP also had a few other things the Democrats lacked: American flags, people dressed in red, white and blue, the national anthem and an opening prayer. But the Republicans had an emptier director’s lawn.

Given that Republicans are in the minority in both the Illinois House and Senate and don’t hold a single statewide office, they have the advantage of declaring innocence in the state’s problems. “They’ve completely dropped the ball and have had an awful six years,” said House Minority Leader Tom Cross. But he acknowledged that the GOP needs to revive itself and be stronger advocates for lower taxes and reforms.

He and Senate Minority Leader Frank Watson repeatedly blamed Blagojevich, as well as Senate President Emil Jones Jr. and Michael Madigan, for a lack of progress on a balanced budget, a capital construction program, an ethics reform package and a host of pension and Medicaid reforms.

“They enable him to do the things that he’s done over the past six years to put the state in the fiscal crisis that we’re in today,” Watson said of his legislative counterparts. “They enable him. There has to be a political price to pay. The voters have got to understand, the public has to understand the difference between what we believe in and what they believe in.”

The one thing all parties agree on is that the state needs a capital plan to repair schools, roads and bridges.

Madigan announced a potential agreement to lease the Illinois Lottery as a way to finance an infrastructure program, seeming to inch closer to a compromise with Blagojevich. But Senate President Emil Jones Jr. said his caucus already negotiated a deal and approved two capital plans, a $36 billion version and a $25 billion version. He added that he hadn’t seen any proposal in writing from Madigan.

The House later approved a roughly $1.1 billion capital bill that would draw federal funds that are waiting in Washington, D.C., for a state match. Republicans, however, called it a false hope and said the plan fails to give approval for the state to spend enough money. “Even if you thought last night was real, it doesn’t work,” Cross said. “It is a very small component of a bigger picture that has to be developed and be painted. But at the end of the day, it doesn’t work.”

Watch Illinois Issues magazine and this blog for more about a capital plan.

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