TV “debates” typically don’t shed much light on which candidates would be the most capable office-holders. This year’s performances of the Republican candidates for Illinois governor have proved no exception.
What should we be looking for in the candidates? Raw intelligence and analytical horsepower? — sure. Knowledge and experience with how government works? — of course. An understanding of budgets, financial principles, cost controls? — absolutely! Even the ability to duck dumb questions.
But which capabilities are most important?
High IQ? — or decades of experience in state government? Someone who knows how to make deals — or someone who can distinguish between a good deal and a bad one?
All the candidates in the GOP primary race for governor appear to pass the minimum IQ test, though one doesn’t pass by much. Three have extensive experience in government — maybe too much. They know how to make deals. But decades in office may leave a candidate with too much tolerance of the status quo and too little sense of urgency. And perhaps not enough willingness to risk offending powerful interest groups.
How about independence and strength of purpose? When tough, unpopular choices have to be made and political debts are being called in, can voters be confident that a particular candidate will buckle up, cut through the conflicting interests and do the right thing for Illinois?
Maybe it helps to focus on what are the major responsibilities of a governor. They include: Overseeing and managing employees effectively. Creating and managing budgets, in which most of the money is spent on people. Overseeing collective bargaining with the unions to reach agreements on salaries, benefits and work rules. Deciding whether to contract out or do the work in-house; deciding whether to close facilities and cut jobs — or borrow more money. Fundamentally improving our K-12 education system.
No governor can be effective if he owes his past election or his political future to the union leaders who sit on the other side of the bargaining table. Rod Blagojevich proved that. Independence is all the more important now, as Illinois and its pension funds are perched precariously on the edge of insolvency.
Accepting massive contributions and Election Day foot soldiers from the public service unions and their allies may be legal in the absence of a quid pro quo, express or implied. But the unions clearly want and expect favorable treatment in return. They believe in the old adage: “You dance at the party with the one that brung you.”
Theoretically, a successful candidate might accept union support but afterward ignore those expectations. He might insist on facilities closings, salary freezes, work-rule changes and restructuring retirement benefits — and more charter schools.
But in the real world of Illinois politics, that won’t happen. If Sen. Kirk Dillard wins the Republican primary, it will be primarily because of the contributions, advertising money and other political support he has received from the unions. They wouldn’t let him forget it, and he’d wind up dancing with those that brung him to the party.
Sen. Dillard seems like a good guy. But the obligations and conflicts created by that union money and political support would make it next-to-impossible for him to be the kind of tough, fiscally focused, independent governor Illinois needs — particularly now.
He’d have won the office in a way that made it not worth the winning.