Friday, November 10, 2006

Flashback: The Once Hazy Portrait of Bill Stratton Gets Clearer—an Ambitious Politician and Progressive, Great Governor Who Distrusted Staff Empire Building, Running the Show Out of His Vest Pocket..

illinois capitol

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

As the haze that covered Bill Stratton gradually lifted through my personal discussions with George Tagge. John Dreiske, Charlie Barr and others as well as my own research…preparatory to my meeting him for lunch…I found a human being of likeable and un-likeable parts.

Un-likeable: He was insatiably ambitious for political advancement that led him upward through federal and state posts, alternately holding office and reaching for more, in a style that turned off his wife…as it would any other normal woman. It must have been tough living with a guy who was never, ever comfortable with a job he was holding but twisted and turned seemingly every six months or so to get another job. No wonder she split from him and found someone else. Just looking at his climb was dizzying for me. Likeable: He was his own man, his own chief of staff, a rebel, never indebted to big money interests, a tireless worker who was unafraid to challenge governors of his own party who had turned their backs on reform, like Dwight H. (“Pump Room Pete”) Green who convicted Capone but lost his idealism after election to the governorship…liking to whoop it up at the popular watering hole he was identified with and who relied on a bloated staff dedicated to just one interest: his.

Un-likeable: He was a big government guy while not enlarging his own political staff unduly: running the place himself…but he saw a need for some government expansion. He understood patronage and expanded it but at the same time was a thrifty soul with his own office staff but was not particularly crazy about cutting the budget to fit government’s current income but a visionary who saw government doing more for people. Likeable: No boozer, no womanizer, no lover of extravagance; a reformer for his time; an enemy of the old “assessment” policy that put a 2% per head fee on patronage workers who were supposed to kick in to the governor’s slush fund. The first real progressive Republican who named women and blacks to key spots. He dealt personally with cabinet and lower level people on the phone; very few memos. Unlikeable: He seemed to have an active dislike of appointing young people to key positions despite his own tender age of 39 when he was elected governor , believing that older people had more maturity. The few young people he had were personal aides—but even there, he did most of the grunt work of administration himself. On reflection, maybe this isn’t an unlikeable quality at all—maybe it was astute.

I’ve seen a lot of young people moved into government and pushed along too quickly, leading to arrogance and big-shot’ism. That didn’t happen with Stratton. Likeable: He was wary of old-time acquaintances who wanted to parlay their early associations with him. He generally refused them on the big jobs, sometimes on all jobs. An example was Earl Madigan of Lincoln, father of Ed Madigan who later became a 1980s Congressman and secretary of agriculture under Reagan. Stratton decided Madigan was too much of a good old boy from southern Illinois who would get him into trouble and so he gave him a very small sinecure. Another Likeable: He worked with as little staff in the governor’s office as possible, phoning people he wanted to reach and taking his own notes which he’d stuff in his vest-pocket; he was called the “vest pocket” governor. He handled all the patronage appointments personally—even down to the stenographers, believing that the corruption would come when inept people were hired on winks and nods by staffers with hidden arrangements. He did that in the state treasurer’s office. This created a bottleneck in hiring but he didn’t care. He wanted to know as many of the people who worked for him as possible.

Possible Un-likeable or Likeable—take your choice. He wasn’t a party power-player. The contest for Republican U. S. Senator drew ten candidates without his personal endorsement. He feared Joseph Meek, as conservative as the 18th century would be nominated, but he refused any chance to block him. One state senator said, “Bill, you’re the titular leader of the party. You’ve got to see that we have a strong candidate.” Stratton said: “No I don’t have to see anything of the kind. I want to be neutral.” He was; Meek won the nomination and was defeated in a landslide.

Possible Likeable or Un-likeable. When he was sworn in as governor in 1953, the state had survived almost twenty years of depression and war without much infrastructure rebuilding. The highway system was obsolete; there was very little building of schools despite the fact that “baby boomers,” the children of World War II veterans were swarming into the schools. The GI Bill had been passed but the University of Illinois and other schools were overcrowded. Despite this, when Stratton submitted his first budget he disregarded a commission’s view and asked for no more for his staff than had been requested earlier. The common complaint among Republican and Democratic operatives was that a too small staff hindered his effectiveness; on the contrary, Stratton felt it helped his effectiveness with the work slowing down until the governor could give personal attention to it himself which is what he wanted.

Likeable. In his time the legislature met only biennially. Liberal experts wanted it to meet annually but Stratton wasn’t buying it. He held open house for all legislators at 8 a.m. Wednesdays with coffee, rolls and juice and any lawmaker could come in and talk directly to him. He started talking about redistricting which had been long put off because rural lawmakers didn’t want Chicago and its suburbs to be gaining any seats. Stratton knew as a politician that it would be wise to have the suburbs particularly gain some seats so he sold the idea of the rural conservatives that if the suburbs gained seats they together could offset Chicago. It was a deal and reapportionment passed. He cut the deal in full view of others at the orange-juice and coffee breakfasts.

Likeable. There came an attitude of informal conviviality about him. He had a dinner once a year for the state Supreme Court justices and their spouses. Walter Schaefer, a top Democrat on the Court, had boasted of how good he was at table tennis. When the Court arrived and while the dinner was cooking, Stratton opened up a side room and there was the ping-pong table. He challenged Schaefer. In the back and forth, Stratton was soon leading. Schaefer stopped the game and doffed his shoes so as to get better traction on the carpet—but Stratton continued to beat him. Others challenged and Stratton beat them all.

Likeable. In his first budget. he stressed economy; no tax increase, no increase for public aid; a modest raise in public education. He was the first governor to hold a press conference where questions did not have to be submitted in writing ahead of time (as they had to under Stevenson). In the conferences, the new governor’s expertise with the details of state government was impressive. One Chicago reporter named Ed Faust of the “Sun-Times” asked what some new furniture a highway office cost. Stratton said, “Look on page 112 of the budget, Faust and you’ll find it there.” The press was amazed. In his inaugural he had promised highway expansion and issued bonds to buy right-of-way and build 187 miles of expressways in northern Illinois. To speed construction, contractors were limited to ten miles of work each. Thus was born the expressway system extending from the Chicago Loop. Whereas Stevenson had vetoed state help with the expressway program, Stratton approved it. He also had promised that Route 66 would have four-lanes between Springfield and Lincoln in time for the state fair. Stevenson had promised the same thing but nothing had been done in four years. When the chief engineer said he was impossible to complete in that time, Stratton said, “then I’ll get somebody in your job who can do it.” The expansion was completed.

Likeable. He instituted the toll roads in Cook county. His decision spurred economic growth in Chicago, Cook and northeastern Illinois. The toll roads spurred patronage which Stratton wasn’t adverse to; but there were no scandals under him, unlike his successors. He sponsored bond issues that financed major construction at state universities leading to development of U of I Chicago and campuses at Edwardsville, DeKalb, Macomb and Charleston.

Likeable. He continued to oppose a state income tax. With Chicago running into trouble with public aid expenditures, the legislature passed a sales tax hike of a half-cent which Stratton let go through, the only tax hike in his two terms.

Then I looked at one big supposed blemish: when the Republican state auditor, Orville Hodge, turned crooked. Hodge was elected on his own and ran his own office but the magnitude of his theft led Stratton to fire him summarily. How much of this was caused by any dereliction on Stratton’s part? It turns out: none.

No comments:

Post a Comment