Monday, November 20, 2006

Flashback: Billy the Kid’s 2nd Term Proved He Was a Big Government Man Without Attendant Scandal. Got Annual Legislative Sessions, Judicial and Fiscal Reform.

[Memoirs from more than fifty years in politics for my kids and grandchildren].

Much of what has gone before has been in praise—and defense of—Billy the Kid Stratton whom I knew well and who influenced much of my thinking about Illinois government ever since. His second term earned him the highest accolades from state government scholars: but it’s my feeling that he re-thought “progressivism” in his final years…at least I deduce this from what he told me over many lunches and coffees (we were both Rotary One members together) especially in the later years.

His budget message, delivered on April 9, 1957, asked for $1.5 billion up only slightly from the prior biennium, with token increases in education, mental health and highway safety. He asked for no new taxes, money for two new mental hospitals; he wanted hunting and fishing license fees upped, a little more for conservation and parks and $7 million for capital improvements. By all odds a conservative budget. His cabinet selections were long-lasting due to the great care he used in finding the right agency heads. There was a remarkable loyalty between his cabinet people and himself. Three of them literally died in his service and two others shortly after they left government. As previously seen, his governor’s staff was very spare: Stratton himself was his own chief budgeter and strategist. His press secretary, Smokey Downey, a colorful Irishman who told funny stories, took on some liaison with other government departments and the legislature (which later became a problem). His press work was given to the “Tribune’s” Johnson Kanady whose byline from Springfield during the Stevenson and early Stratton days had been well known.

Get this: To continue to pay Kanady what he had been earning at the “Tribune,” Stratton supplemented his salary by more than $11,000 which was made up from Stratton’s campaign fund. These days the salaries in state government are not so low. The supplementation from a campaign fund probably wouldn’t be tolerated under the current political correctness fiction that government and politics are supposed to be separate (when, of course, it is next to impossible to isolate them).

Neither Downey or Kanady did any speech-writing—because no one did but Stratton. For usual appearances, he just got up and talked since his knowledge of state government was so encyclopedic, more than any governor before him but Henry Horner and probably no one since him although Dick Ogilvie comes close (and probably would have rivaled him had he served two terms). For major speeches…such as the one he made on TV to the people about Orville Hodge, State of the State and budget addresses…he wrote the texts himself and enjoyed doing so.

He polished a Personnel Code and got the Department to write professional job descriptions. He wanted a highly professionalized state service but he valued patronage as well and spent most of his time personally filling these posts. His improvements for civil service were attacked by two GOP stalwarts, Elmer Hoffman (an old-time warhorse from DuPage who was state treasurer) and Edward Moore, Cook county GOP chairman then in the mode of county chairmen, interested in patronage for what it could do to rustle up votes. Hoffman charged the Stratton idea of civil service was unconstitutional, barring the right of a governor to hire people to get done what he wanted to get done. Moore thundered that as county chairman “we should be allowed to maintgain our organization in the interest of good government [sic]. It takes a lot of work to go out and get the people to register, to go from house to house and change their addresses, and to go out and get votes. Who is going to do it all? The county chairman can’t do it alone.”

The baldness of Hoffman and Moore reflect the bad old days before reform. Stratton’s reform of patronage, mild as it was then, wasn’t very well covered by the press because reform wasn’t that big an issue. The media didn’t care much about believing that it was Stratton’s minutia (but they were wrong; Stratton apprehended a future emergence of the patronage problem that besets both governorship and Chicago mayoralty right now). Still the election of 1958 (where Stratton was mid-term and didn’t run) was not favorable to him. He had a “blue ballot” he sponsored for judicial reform, changing the specs for minor judgeships such as justices of the peace and police magistrates which made no legal or other educational qualifications: a throwback to the 19th century. Earlier he had won a redistricting amendment: now he wanted to give central administrative direction to the courts of the state. Two issues were on the ballot that year: one for judicial reform and the other for a bond issue for capital needs in education and mental health. Both failed in the election of 1958—and Democrats took control of the House.

The idea that Stratton and Richard J. Daley who cooperated on several initiatives early in the first term and caused Daley to support a week candidate against Stratton in 1956 led some to believe they were close in perpetuity. But they were never permanent allies. In the legislative session of 1959 where the Dems had gained control of the House, Stratton was alarmed that Daley had mobilized his troops to elect a tough Chicago liberal as Speaker, one who would fight Stratton on issues to the death. It was Daley’s way of throwing down the gauntlet, telling Stratton that politics wasn’t beanbag. The skids were greased for Daley’s choice, Joseph DeLaCour of Chicago. But Stratton sent a discreet message to conservative Democrat Paul Powell of from far south Vienna (in Johnson county). Powell hightailed it to the mansion and he and Stratton cut a deal. Stratton told Republican House members he’d appreciate their voting for Powell as Speaker on the second ballot. They did; Powell became Speaker and foiled Daley’s plans, prompting the “Sun-Times’” John Dreiske to write that Stratton “plunged the knife into Daley and twisted it around a bit.” Powell and Stratton cooperated on quite a bit and old man Daley, thundering and complaining, learned that shrewd strategizing was also done in Springfield.

Stratton wrote his budget message in long-hand, perfecting it as he went; operations spending totaled $1.8 billion, up $160 million, capital spending $600 million, mostly for highways and again hiked expenditures for mental health to be paid by higher taxes on tobacco and liquor, closing sales tax loopholes and a half-cent increase in the sales tax specifically for education. Once again he recommended a bond issue go on the ballot for 1960 asking $120 million for higher education which would include a new University of Illinois in Chicago and $150 million for mental health capital needs. For the sales tax hike, essential to his budget, Speaker Powell delivered enough Democratic votes to get it passed. Then Stratton considered whether or not to confront a big bugaboo that had stymied previous governors—whether or not to run for a third term.

He was fairly popular but was controversial in his own party with the conservatives. They didn’t like his reform policies but they also were angered as his failure to build a strong Republican machine, stemming from his handling of patronage himself, out of his vest pocket, rather than hiring political managers in state government who would spend a lifetime in politics serving both Republican and Democratic interests as did Jim Thompson’s “Combine” twenty years later.

Stratton decided to run for a third term. His big problem across the state was still the specter of Orville Hodge which are indelibly tarnished his reputation…but he had beaten that problem before, in 1956, and thought he could do so again. He had a conservative primary opponent, Hayes Robertson, a state Senator. Robertson’s complaint was paradoxical. First, Stratton had kept too many Republican pols out of juicy patronage jobs; second, he supported government that was too big: rather a contradiction. Stratton hoped there would be no more scandals in his administration but his old aide, Smokey Downey ran afoul of the IRS. After Stratton had directed him to cease his personal p. r. interests in 1953, Downey continued illegal free lancing, forming a shadow public relations firm and representing through surreptitious contacts the Master Plumbers Association. Chicago Downs race track and Maywood Park Trotting Association. He hadn’t paid sufficient taxes and was indicted. Hayes Robertson used that as an issue against Stratton in the primary.

Stratton easily defeated Robertson and faced Judge Otto Kerner, Daley’s candidate for governor. The Hodge scandal never died; the Downey scandal continued to reverberate. Last minute Democratic charges maintained state money was used to fund a pro-Stratton campaign film (which was disproved), that Stratton was given a $5,000 boat by his director of revenue but the director proved he had sold it to Stratton for $4,700. A private audit funded by Kerner alleged the state faced a possible deficit of $31 million by end of the fiscal year (but the numbers were fudged for political benefit). Kerner also charged there was a shortage of state judges and a sizable backlog of cases awaiting trial. That was correct but if Stratton’s judicial reform amendment had been approved in 1958 the problem would have been avoided. But in November, 1960 when John F. Kennedy squeezed out a very narrow victory which raised charges of vote fraud here, Kerner beat Stratton by 524,000 votes. There was much ticket-splitting: paradoxically the two bond issues supported by Stratton—for mental health and higher education—won.

Why did Billy the Kid lose? Three reasons: the prospect of a third term was unpopular…the Hodge scandal coupled with the Downey indictment took the bloom off the rose...and a life-style that while not luxurious involved vacations that were too well publicized: skiing in Sun Valley, for example.

And then, as Stratton prepared to take it easy as a private citizen, living off the proceeds of his farm that he had inherited from his father and added to with his savings, he was visited by two IRS agents who told him they were entertaining the possibility of indicting him for criminal prosecution for misusing campaign funds for his own benefit. The historic fight with the IRS which he ultimately won diminished any chance that he would be an effective candidate again…or that he would ever duplicate his predecessor governors and serve on corporate boards. The colorful IRS fight which led to the courts will be covered next. All of these things occurred by the time I had my first lunch with him…one of many to come in the future where I got to know Billy the Kid: a progressive governor of his time…but no empire-builder…no “Combine” architect…whose views on Illinois government have shaped my own for years to come.

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