This spring, the Illinois Legislature passed a budget – on time and, at least on paper, balanced. It was a rare bipartisan moment in a state which had seen partisan gridlock result in several years of partial or no budgets. In this week’s Friday Forum, WNIJ’s Guy Stephens looks at an effort to encourage more bipartisanship in the state of Illinois.
Jim Edgar was Governor of Illinois from 1991 to 1999. The Republican says he and legislators -- both on the Democratic side and within his own party -- had their differences.
“But, at the end of the day, we usually got things done. I mean, we always had a budget. Most of the problems, there was a solution. They weren’t perfect, but there was a resolution to whatever the challenges facing the state at that time were,” Edgar said, “and it usually took Republicans and Democrats, because this was always a pretty evenly divided state.”
Edgar says he would hear and consider differing views from opposing leaders, colleagues and even his own staff when formulating policy. In politics today, not so much.
“We’ve got away from that, unfortunately,” he said. “We’ve polarized in politics, not just in Springfield, but in Washington as well, and I don’t think that makes for good government.”
Edgar now heads the Institute of Government & Public Affairs at the University of Illinois, a nonpartisan organization. He was determined to create a way to overcome the various barriers to civil discourse in Illinois while, at the same time, fostering leadership skills: the Edgar Fellows Program.
“The purpose of this program was to try to, hopefully, convince these up-and-comers that, you know, there’s nothing wrong with compromise,” he explained. “I mean, you can be from one part of the state and from the other part of the state and you can have different points of view, but at the end you ought to be able to find some common ground.”
Since its inception in 2012, more than 200 people have been selected as Edgar Fellows. Edgar says the mix of individuals is chosen quite deliberately to reflect the demographics of the state: people from all corners of Illinois, Democrats and Republicans, men and women, whites, African-Americans, Hispanic and Asian people as well. Edgar says many of them had never been in another part of the state or really gotten to know someone from another party, ethnic group or background.
“And in a short period of time they’re in Champaign,” Edgar said, "they’re there for four days, but it’s pretty intense. They began to develop relationships that we have seen carried over. We also have found that downstaters and Chicagoans have found out that they have a lot more in common than they have differences.”
Republican State Sen. Sue Rezin was in the Edgar Fellows class of 2014. She represents the 38th Senate District, which includes seven counties – Will, Grundy, Kendall, LaSalle, Bureau and Putnam – in the upper middle part of the state.
Rezin is upfront about being a conservative. She acknowledges that she has strong positions on some things; but, she says, too many people -- including many politicians -- don’t ever see compromise as a viable option on any issue. The gridlock seen in our state, in Washington, D.C., and elsewhere comes from that all-or-nothing approach.
“When we come to that agreement, for us it’s probably 60 or 70 percent,” she said. “So the ability to recognize that, in a negotiation, if you get 60 or 70 percent of what you want, it is a good deal, and you need to accept that.”
Rezin says some of the uncompromising partisanship stems from the ever-more-precise practice of gerrymandering – voting districts drawn to strongly favor a particular party. She thinks being in one of the few swing districts in Illinois actually makes her a better senator, because she has to listen and take account of other views in order to stay in office. But many of her colleagues can ignore the other side -- at least in elections.
Rezin says it takes something like the Edgar Fellows program to overcome that.
“Just simply sitting in the room and listening to the challenges that another elected official with a different background and a different part of the state faces was enlightening,” she said. “And how do you work with that person to get to the end result?”
Rezin says the program’s format also encouraged the fellows to think and work in a bipartisan manner by presenting both sides of an argument.
“So if you have someone talking about, you know, why there’s a need for more taxes in the state of Illinois, you will also have an expert at the same panel saying why lower taxes and less government is better for a growing the economy in the state of Illinois,” she explained. “After the speakers, we were allowed to speak with our colleagues and figure out where we go from here.”
Rezin says that, in the course of discussion, everyone had a chance to hear where people were coming from and how their views were formed.
“And it’s good for us to hear that,” she said. “And I think what is missing in the state of Illinois, but also across the country, is the ability for legislators to sit down and listen to the other side even though they might not agree, but at least respect the other side and how my colleagues across the aisle get to that decision.”
Democratic State Sen. Steve Stadelman, who also was in that 2014 Edgar Fellows class, agrees. He represents the 34th District, based in Winnebago County and including the city of Rockford and surrounding towns.
He says the program was a valuable, and useful, learning experience.
“Whether you practice the art of negotiation, or sitting across the table, or you’re in a meeting discussing issues with people who have different viewpoints than you, just to hear different perspectives, someone you may not agree with initially, getting to know people, getting to know how the people look at the issues,” he said, “that’s a valuable exercise in trying to govern, and trying to craft legislation, and a budget.”
He, too, sees the Edgar Fellows and similar efforts as important to combatting the polarization and sometimes poisonous atmosphere that makes legislating difficult.
“It’s harder to throw bombs or demonize your opponent when you’ve spent a week with them, or been able to have good conversations, talk about bipartisan solutions,” he said. “Middle ground is much easier to find that way.”
In addition to the budget, Rezin says another example where the parties have been able to forge bipartisan compromise is in education. She says last year’s education overhaul for K-12 public schools and bills this year supporting higher education relied on bipartisan cooperation. That came, in part, on the relationships between individual legislators.
Edgar concurs. He points out that the two principals in the school funding bill were Edgar Fellows and had that bond to build on.
Stadelman also says the presence of people who’ve been through Edgar’s program helps. And he hopes their numbers continue to grow.
“Politics is driven by personalities and people being able to work together and get along,” he said. “The Edgar Fellowship promotes that. And if you have more people in the General Assembly who’ve been through this program or similar types of exercises, that’s going to lend to a better outcome.”
Edgar is happy that the program seems to be bearing fruit, but the Fellows are still a distinct minority in Springfield, and he says more efforts like his are needed. Anything’s got to be better than what’s been the status quo.
“We shout an awful lot and call people names and forget we have to work with them,” he said. “And again, we don’t necessarily expect we’ll change anyone’s political philosophy but [if] we can just get them to be a bit more agreeable in how they try to implement that, then we think we’ve been successful.”
Still, Edgar has hopes.
“My goal is someday the mayor of Chicago and the governor of Illinois will be two people that met at the Edgar Fellows and they actually get along,” he laughed, “and they can work together. Now, I’ll be happy just to have a speaker and a governor, maybe, that meet that criteria.”
This year’s class of Edgar Fellows includes Rockford Mayor Tom McNamara and Winnebago County Board Chairman Frank Haney.