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Commentary: Illinois reformers made a good start, and that's worth celebrating

This article fist appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 22, 2009 - Gladiators for reform spent an incredibly intense year challenging the core of clout in Illinois and fully experienced the grime of a battleground Teddy Roosevelt vividly described almost a century ago.

"The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming ... but who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat," the nation's 26th president declared in a globally noted address at France's Sorbonne in April 1910.

Roosevelt, who attacked business monopolies while in the White House, may not have envisioned women, as well as men, in the phalanxes storming political bastions in the state House, but he captured their pluck and plight. After months and months of trying to persuade politicians to change the system that empowered them, the warriors for the CHANGE Illinois coalition received praise for their advances and chiding for their retreats.

They won limits on campaign contributions - a reform thrust deflected by lawmakers for decades. They secured more frequent and forthright disclosure of contributors, especially big-time givers and bundlers who solicit donations from numerous sources and funnel them into the coffers of candidates. The reformers paved the way for more vigorous policing of violations.

However, to garner those victories, they reluctantly acceded to Democratic legislative chieftains who wanted to continue piping huge amounts of money into the general-election campaigns of their members.

Critics charged the compromise package's failure to leash the leaders while restraining others essentially augmented the dominance of House Speaker Michael J. Madigan and Senate President John J. Cullerton over rank-and-file legislators reliant on their largesse. Several depicted the legislation as a net negative. But the assessment is unwarranted and harsh, given the principled, persistent and productive efforts of those who braved close combat with Madigan and Cullerton in the center of the arena.

Among the frontline soldiers were Cindi Canary, Dawn Clark Netsch, Paula Wolff and George Ranney.

  • Canary, executive director of the Campaign for Political Reform, has been one of the most effective good-government advocates in the state's history;
  • Netsch, a marvelously vibrant octogenarian continues crusades she launched as a lawmaker decades ago;
  • Wolff has brought remarkable enthusiasm and savvy to the cause of sound public policy for more than 30 years;
  • Ranney refused to allow his defeat in a 1986 run for the U.S. Senate to end the civic engagement he now practices as head of Metropolis 2020.

Let them inspire and motivate us. This is no time to curse the unachieved. We should toast the progress and recommit ourselves to more.
We must assure the State Board of Elections has the resources and resolve to use its new enforcement tools.

We must change a legislative redistricting process that, as many have noted, allows lawmakers to choose their constituents instead of vice versa.

We must end the nonsense of a primary in the dead of winter that further entrenches House and Senate incumbents.

We must hold all lawmakers - not just their leaders - more accountable for state government's shameful performance.

Many more Illinoisans must become engaged as well as outraged. As Teddy Roosevelt said in that Sorbonne speech, "The average citizen must be a good citizen if our republics are to succeed."

Mike Lawrence, former director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University, writes a twice-monthly columm.