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Commentary: Early Illinois primary gives incumbents a big advantage

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 8, 2009 - Diligent Illinois voters and the spate of candidates courting them must somehow connect in a meaningful way during the hubbub of the holidays and the harshness of winter.

Why the crunch? Not long after they carve their turkeys, voters must trim the field. Nutty as it seems, they will begin casting ballots as soon as Jan. 11 to determine the finalists in a general election that will occur a year from now.

At stake are a U.S. Senate seat, the governorship of a state flirting with fiscal implosion, scores of legislative posts and a wide array of other offices. Nevertheless, barring any withdrawals or disqualifications, the seven Republicans, four Democrats and two Greens who filed for governor must make their case while families enjoy Thanksgiving feasts and football, prowl malls in pursuit of gift bargains, adorn Christmas trees, light menorahs, cheer the New Year and cope with cold, snow and ice.

A Feb. 2 primary makes sense only to the gang that helped steer the ship of state government to the shores of bankruptcy. Illinois legislators love it as a re-election booster.

More than a year before the 2010 general election, their potential foes had to determine whether to make a run. Now the challengers must battle the elements as well as entrenched power. They must brave brutal temperatures and slick sidewalks in December and January to engage in the personal campaigning that could mitigate the advantages of incumbency.

Through the years, legislators have grudgingly accepted incursions into their well-guarded turf. In 1998, for example, they agreed to ban the use of campaign funds for personal expenses, such as purchasing cars and paying tuition for their children. But when the same reform initiative pressed them to move what was then a March primary back to June or even later, almost all Democrats and Republicans balked in a stirring exhibition of bipartisan brotherhood.

Not surprisingly, when Barack Obama's supporters pushed for a February 2008 primary to help propel him toward the presidential nomination, lawmakers seized the opportunity to return the state to prominence in selecting Democratic and Republican standard-bearers - and to add another ply of protection for themselves. Instead of limiting the advanced primary to 2008 or even other presidential election years, they embedded it in the Illinois political process.

The early balloting marvelously complements a flawed system that permits partisan gain and incumbent inoculation to trump the public's interest in the drawing of legislative districts. So, here we are in November 2009 with the bulk of legislative results in the November 2010 election foreordained.

Three dozen of the 118 House members have no foe, and scores have only token opposition. On the Senate side, eight of the 21 seats on the ballot apparently are uncontested, and few races loom as truly competitive.

All of which would be less difficult to abide if the fortification of incumbents led to fortitude in policymaking. But the vast majority have ducked the hard decisions on taxes and spending essential to fiscal stability.

The absence of courage, the contempt for responsible governance, the lack of fiscal integrity, the surrender to political expediency and self-preservation severely test the resolve of those who have resisted term limits as a pseudo-solution that empowers unelected bureaucrats and legislative staff. Yet, we need to get past the frustration and redouble our efforts to force later primaries, a constituent-oriented method of drawing legislative districts and more accountability from rank-and-file lawmakers as well as their leaders.

Then we can be even more appreciative on Thanksgivings to come.

Mike Lawrence retired Nov. 1, 2008, as director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University. He is returning to his journalism roots as a twice-monthly columnist.