Former Gov. Jim Edgar reflects on Illinois
By Jim Nowlan
When Republican Jim Edgar became governor in 1991, only one quarter of Illinois residents were "satisfied with the way things were going in Illinois," according to an annual survey by Northern Illinois University.
When Jim left office in 1998, 52 percent were satisfied, and only 10 percent were not satisfied (with the rest in between somewhere).
Since then, the good numbers have plummeted, to only 12 percent satisfied in 2011 (last year the annual survey was conducted), with an overwhelming two-thirds unsatisfied.
I sat down for lunch with Jim Edgar last week to talk about Illinois and where we are headed.
Now in his mid-60s, Jim Edgar has developed a busy and rewarding life since leaving office. He and Brenda have two children and five grandchildren in Colorado, where the Edgars spend much time.
Back in Springfield, where the Edgars live, Jim enjoys owning standard bred and thoroughbred horses, which he races at county and state fairs in the Midwest.
"You know how to make a million dollars in horses?" Jim asked, smiling. "Start with 10 million."
Jim travels, often to Chicago, to serve on corporate boards (Kemper Insurance, Alberto-Culver and others) and has chaired good government boards such as Advance Illinois (education) and the Lincoln Presidential Library.
Jim and Brenda often travel overseas as well, and especially like the Mediterranean. A historian, Jim recommends "Rising Tide," about the great Mississippi flood of the 1920s, and he has been reading large tomes about Churchill and Lyndon Johnson.
Jim also lectures on the three campuses of the University of Illinois.
And he finds it "scary" that so many young Illinois residents are "down on Illinois and looking elsewhere to locate after college."
"Young people don't see government as an avenue to solve problems as we did in the 1960s," he adds.
Jim spent his career in state government, as an aide to state legislative leaders, then as a legislator, aide to Gov. Jim Thompson, secretary of state and two terms as governor. As a candidate for governor, he recommended keeping a temporary income tax increase permanent, yet still won. As governor, he became known as "Governor No" to interests that wanted to spend money, and he left office with a big surplus in the treasury.
Jim also provided more money for poor school districts and imposed property tax caps on metropolitan Chicagoland, which many downstate counties also enacted. The caps have been demonstrated by academics to have significantly slowed the growth of property taxes.
The key to managing a big enterprise like the $60 billion-a-year state of Illinois, says Jim, is to recruit a good team, with many smarter than you are on some subjects.
"And be careful what you promise, and deliver what you promise."
"Have your principles and stick to them," Jim continues, "but most of government is instead about policy, and the governor has the job of bringing people together and trying to get them to his point of view, when he can."
As for principles, Jim has always been pro-choice and death against drinking, which he didn't allow in the governor's mansion.
"The job of governing is not about friendships, but alliances — and alliances shift, so be careful what you say about people, as you may need them for alliances in the future."
Jim Edgar says a chief executive also has to have people who will tell him when they think his ideas are crazy.
"When I was on the treadmill (prescribed after a heart attack while in office) in the morning at the mansion, I would come up with some 'great' ideas and walk over to the Capitol full of them.
"But fortunately I had staff like Mike Lawrence who would respond, 'That's fine, Governor, but how would it look on the front page of the Tribune?' and there went my great idea."
Jim Edgar notes as well that "half the people voted against you, and you have to keep them in mind as well" when making policy.
A mentor long ago told a young Jim Edgar that, "The job is not to do politics but to solve problems. (Speaker of the House) Mike Madigan and I would fight like dogs, yet ultimately we would come together on a budget."
Jim Edgar is not as pessimistic as some about the chances of Republicans to elect a governor in 2014.
"A perceived moderate will be required, one who can work with the Democrats (whose skillful map-making has locked up the legislature for that party throughout the decade)."
One like Jim Edgar, who has no interest whatever in running again.
We miss you, Governor.
A former state legislator and aide to three unconvicted governors, Nowlan is retired from the University of Illinois where he taught political science. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.