Former Gov. Jim Edgar reflects on Illinois

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

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Political Observer wrote on June 02, 2013 at 4:06 pm

This is pretty demented writing, even for the shoddy Republican "journalistic standards" of the News-Gazette.  It would be interesting to show it to a class of journalism students, (or even political science students, for that matter) and watch them rip it apart for violating just about every rule of "professional journalism," (if there still are any such rules left in place in this age of corporate PR replacing journalism).

For a starter, one of the reasons it reads almost as pure hagiography is Nowlan's refusal to refer to his subject as "Edgar."  Referring to Edgar repeatedly as "Jim" or "Jim Edgar" makes Nowlan sound like Edgar is his boss, and he's angling for a raise.  (Has the News-Gazette editor by any chance happened to check to make sure this wasn't originally a "Why I Love My Grandpa" school essay written by one of Edgar's grandkids?)

Political Observer wrote on June 02, 2013 at 4:06 pm

Nowlan starts his commentary by mentioning three years, 1991, 1998 and 2011, and asks us to consider the percentage of Illinois residents who were "satisfied with the way things were going in Illinois," according to an annual survey by Northern Illinois University.  These percentages were low in 1991 when Edgar took office, high in 1998 when Edgar left office, and very low more recently in 2011.

Nowlan seems to want to push us into thinking, "Gee, Edgar sure changed things around, making everything so much better by the time he left office!...And, further, things fell completely apart much, much later, when Edgar had no longer been in office for quite some time (13 years)! Why, what an amazing "Economic Superman" Edgar the Great was!  Oh, do we ever miss you, Governor Edgar!"

By this same line of reasoning, though, shouldn't we also credit Edgar for completely transforming the national economy from the dismal economic times of George H. W. Bush in 1991 (which helped cost Bush re-election in 1992) to the later boom times of Bill Clinton in 1998?...(followed, of course, by the more recent economic dismal times in 2011.  While the latter is usually attributed by economists as resulting from the slow recovery from the Great Recession and austerity policies resulting from too much concern over deficit spending, Nowlan has shown us that the primary reason is simply that Jim Edgar is no longer Governor of Illinois!).

Life sure is grand when correlation is the same thing as causation, and you never have to worry about pesky intervening variables like the state of the national economy and what effect it might have on economic conditions in Illinois -- right, Jim Nowlan?

dw wrote on June 03, 2013 at 12:06 pm


Not only that, but guest opinion.  Hopefully that class of journalism students would be quick to pick up on the fact that it was an opinion piece, in the op-ed section and not written by a professional journalist.

But to be on-topic, you'd be hard pressed to find a modern Illinois Governor that was as good, if not better than Jim Edgar:

The jail birds:
Rod Blagojevich D - Jailed on corruption, attempts to sell Senate seat
George Ryan, R - Release from 5 year stint in Jail for racketeering
Dan Walker, D - Jailed on Bank fraud after leaving office

That leaves:
James "Big Jim" R. Thompson R
Jim Edgar R
Pat Quinn D

You'd be hard pressed to show that either Big Jim or Quinn were Edgar's equal...

As a liberal who typically votes for the Democrat candidate, I'd love to have a candidate from downstate like Jim Edgar to vote into office regardless of party affiliation.  If Jim Edgar ran today, he'd win just on his ability to keep his nose clean, and keep Madigan in check.

Sid Saltfork wrote on June 03, 2013 at 1:06 pm

Management Systems of Illinois was Edgar's largest "campaign donor".  MIS was granted a $20 Million contract with the State of Illinois by Edgar's office.  The Feds picked up on it, and investigated.  Edgar almost broke down in his televised interview.  He was spared the indignity of testifying in public.  Some of his underlings were convicted along with some MIS staff.  Edgar was not prosecuted.

Edgar, and Thompson (Renaissance Hotel / Bill Cellini, and much more) were like every other Illinois governor.  The skim is significant enough to attract people like Quinn ( sale of the Illinois State Lottery to "campaign donor"), Rutherford, Brady, Topinka, Bill Daly, and Lisa Madigan.  It pays off; and the odds of getting caught are less than 50-50.

Danno wrote on June 03, 2013 at 5:06 pm

Yeah, I agree; Edgar was amongst the better of recent times, though, 'squeaky clean'? Dunno...I thought I heard, some time ago, in a fog, that Edgar was a 'God Son' of Dan Walker. Oops...I'm gonna' be 'removed.'

Sid Saltfork wrote on June 03, 2013 at 9:06 pm

Worse than that.  He was a "protege" of Big Jim Thompson.  A poor boy from Oklahoma who "interned" his way up the political ladder.  Now, he is in the racehorse business.

Danno wrote on June 03, 2013 at 9:06 pm

The formerly anointed one smiles...'...start with $10 Million...(chuckle, aren't I cutesy)...'

Political Observer wrote on June 05, 2013 at 12:06 am

Here's part of the Jim Edgar story that hero-worshipper Jim Nowlan just plumb(er) forgot to mention (and that Sid alluded to earlier):


MSI, a computer consulting firm, was hired by the Edgar administration in the early 1990s to identify people who were covered by private health insurance policies and eligible to receive Medicaid.

The original contract provided for modest payments to MSI for its services. But after intense lobbying of Edgar administration officials by MSI, the contract was rewritten with extremely generous new terms.

In 1993, the state paid MSI $409,000, but by the next year payments to the firm for essentially the same services skyrocketed to $11.2 million.

The scandal broke in 1996, leading to a series of trials in which prosecutors alleged that MSI and its officials gained improper influence by donating $270,000 in cash and computer services to Edgar's campaign fund and showering state employees with gifts, including cash, trips and packages of steaks and lobsters.


Oh, yeah...For the humor value alone, I should also mention this part of the story:


The list of those linked by prosecutors to the scandal but not charged included Michael Belletire, Edgar's deputy chief of staff and later head of the Illinois Gaming Board; Janis Cellini, Edgar's patronage chief and the sister of Springfield power broker William Cellini; and Jim Owen, a former assistant to Philip.

Also named as unindicted co-conspirators were Terry Bedgood and Terry Logsdon, two former legislative staffers and business consultants who lobbied for MSI.


The funny part is that it wasn't enough for the Thompson-Edgar gang to deal with the corrupt William Cellini himself...Edgar had to go and make Cellini's sister his "patronage chief," as well!!!  Ah, those "Good Ole Days" with Jim Edgar!

Political Observer wrote on June 05, 2013 at 12:06 am

When "Big Jim" Thompson was Governor of Illinois, he was a strong believer in the "Spoils System"...he strongly disparaged "Civil Service" jobs in government in favor of jobs staffed by dyed-in-the-wool Republican appointees, whose loyalty went directly to him, rather than to the State of Illinois.  Thompson had his Secretary of State, Jim Edgar, serve as his Mr. Moneybags, in charge of collecting campaign contributions (some might say, "tribute payments") from these fellow Republicans, so they might show their continuing loyalty to Thompson for their jobs.  (Incidentally, quite a bit of Republican political work was also done on the state payroll back in those Thompson days, by the people hired into those patronage jobs.)

One of the ways the system generated campaign contributions was that Edgar would sell a bunch of tickets to a Republican fundraising dinner to each of a number of managers of state employees.  Each manager, in turn, would then make his employees buy the tickets; otherwise, the manager would just have to absorb the cost for the tickets that were left unsold. Employees would often grumble quietly about being forced to buy tickets from their bosses to yet another fundraiser...but they knew that if they declined to buy the tickets, they might find themselves without their State of Illinois job a short ways down the road, when someone with a greater "loyalty to Thompson" was hired to take their place.

When Edgar became governor, he continued this method of raising money from patronage jobs, with his Secretary of State, George Ryan, acting as his Mr. Moneybags.  To generate additional money, Ryan's Secretary of State's Office employed the "Bribes for Licenses Scandal" that ultimately was one of the things that sent Ryan to prison.  (And Rodney Davis, by the way, worked 4 years for George Ryan's office, at just the time that this scandal happened to be taking place, with not the slightest clue, supposedly, of what was going on...The man just seems to have a knack for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, with supposedly no knowledge whatsoever of all the criminal activity happening all around him!...Amazing!)

Anyway, that's a bit more of the Jim Edgar story that somehow got left out of the News-Gazette's guest editorial...

Sid Saltfork wrote on June 05, 2013 at 4:06 pm

I tip my hat to the political historian.  If it had not been for the US Supreme Court decision on the Carol Rutan case; every employee in the state would have been required to join the GOP, and pay off to the local district GOP representative.  It was happening.  People had to join to get a promotion, or a job.  Those already employed were told that they needed to join the GOP in order to keep their jobs.  Their jobs were non-political civil service.  Thompson was able to continue patronage in the "essential" management after the Rutan decision though.  All Public Service Administrators were GOP party people.  One guy went from running his small garbage route to being an agency Public Service Administrator without ever working for the agency, or supervising agency employees.   It went up the line.  Of course when Blago followed Edgar, and Ryan; the top people were democrats.  

Illinois has not known an honest governor since Ogelvy.   Maybe, I was naive during his tenure; but he was not nearly as corrupt as those who followed him.   

Political Observer wrote on June 17, 2013 at 4:06 pm

Sorry, Sid... I have to disagree with your comments on Gov. Richard Ogilvie.  It was actually Ogilvie who gave Cellini his start in Illlinois state government.  I came across the following information while checking out what information Wikipedia had on Cellini:


In 1969, Governor Richard B. Ogilvie appointed William Cellini to be the Director of Public Works and Buildings for Illinois. In 1971, he was appointed Illinois' first Secretary of Transportation and directed several thousand employees while administering an annual budget of over a billion dollar dollars in public works programs.[7]

In April 1972, the Illinois State Senate unanimously confirmed Cellini as the first secretary of the newly created Illinois Department of Transportation, putting him in charge of 10,000 employees and a budget of more than $1.5 billion. The election of Democrat Dan Walker as Governor the following year ended Cellini's career in state government.[6]