Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Flashback: So Far I Learned Stratton Was a Progressive, a Loner, One Who Distrusted Political Staffs, Who Did His Own Strategizing and Who Pioneered the Merger of GOP and Dems that Became the Combine.

road construction
[Memoirs of fifty-plus years in politics for my kids and grandchildren].

Progressivism, bricks and mortar took on a major priority in the first term of Bill Stratton the Builder in 1953. Not just highways, although with passage of the Interstate Highway Act in Washington there were many of those. There was construction of a new state office building at $12.5 million; legislative reapportionment which had been delayed for a half century; a stronger mine safety law was passed; a commission to study state personnel administration was set up to attack patronage abuses. “Time” magazine said his administration put Adlai Stevenson’s in the shade. In the early 1950s fear of communism was widespread—in Washington and in areas of Illinois. A state Senator named Paul Broyles introduced a bill requiring a loyalty oath for all state employees. Stratton vetoed it and won plaudits from liberals. The “Sun-Times” which had opposed his election wrote an editorial praising his progressivism. Still, Stratton praised patronage, saying “the only trouble with patronage is that there isn’t enough of it.”

He was smart enough to avoid getting involved in intra-party disputes, stayed neutral in a primary to pick a candidate for the U. S. Senate against Paul Douglas. He was canny in picking fights. The Cook county Democrats nominated a so-called reformer for sheriff, Joseph Lohman. Lohman, an educator, had made a statement while an academic that policemen in Chicago have “a disproportionate number of wives who were prostitutes.” Stratton attacked him on a hit-and-run basis, then faded back as Lohman won the sheriff’s contest and appeared to be a future opponent against him. President Eisenhower hosted a stag dinner that sought to identify future progressive leaders of the party. The conclusions of the group were leaked—and one of the rising stars was identified as Stratton.

In his third year, Stratton zeroed in on more spending, finally establishing himself as a big government guy with the proviso he was not a big spender. A contradiction? Not really. He wanted annual legislative sessions, opened the executive mansion phone line twenty-four hours a day (a big news story at the time) and still submitted a frugal budget to the legislature, showing that more than half of all state agencies would be spending less than in 1953-55. The balanced picture that emerged was like a portrait self-painted by a master—detailing cuts here, increases there. Then this cautious man took a big gamble. He called for budget increases in welfare, education, conservation and agriculture, increases in personnel for the state highway patrol, prisons, state hospitals and highways…and called for an increase in the sales tax from 2 to 3% (the state had no income tax). Smaller, conservative rural communities opposed it along with their newspapers. Bigger towns—Decatur, Peoria and Champaign—supported it.

The key was what the new mayor of Chicago would do—Richard J. Daley. Stratton knew Daley from the time when the mayor was Adlai Stevenson’s revenue director and Stratton state treasurer. The two practiced pols sat down. Stratton realized one thing: he had the upper hand; governors always do in dealings with mayors. Both detail artists they met frequently, agreeing on an additional $34 million for Daley to run the city “properly.” Stratton said he’d give Daley a one-penny per dollar sales tax increase with the state to get a half-cent and the cities choosing to participate, getting the other half. If a city didn’t want the half-cent, it wouldn’t be collected within its boundaries. If it wanted it, the state would collect and rebate it.

The deal was opposed by an important Republican constituency for Stratton: the Illinois Federation of Retail Associations. It balked because as a statewide organization it didn’t want to see an optional tax hike which would put merchants in cities that chose the hike disadvantaged. Its leader, Joe Meek, an important Republican of his time, wanted a one-cent increase levied everywhere by the state with the half-cent collected within cities rebated to them. “No soap,” Stratton told the merchants when they crowded around his desk. “I’ll help pass a bill to give your city councils the authority to raise a sales tax. That’s it. You think I’m dumb enough to ask the legislature to take the monkey off your city councils’ backs and put it on their back? No deal.” He won applause from the legislature with the statement and the retail merchants backed down. Afterward he met with Daley privately (the press didn’t know about it). They agreed that Daley would help Stratton in redistricting that would produce more GOP state Senate districts and Stratton would agree to a 5% utility tax for municipalities and a judicial reform amendment. These things and a new convention center for Chicago (which later came to be known as McCormick Place).

The early Stratton-Daley deals marked the first time in state history that deals were made between a Republican governor and a Democratic mayor. Viewed as extremely necessary at the time, their handshake began a slow partnership which ended up much later with Ogilvie and later Jim Thompson and the Democratic party in Chicago being consorts to each other with staffs of both making out like bandits in the “Combine.” While Stratton didn’t have aides except one major fellow, “Smoky” Robinson, a combination press man and adviser, the “Combine” moved into an unstated partnership with Richard Ogilvie and a total one-party situation with Thompson to the point where candidates of both parties virtually represented the same interests and voters had no alternative.

1 comment:

  1. Did Robinson work for Clarence Neff later on?