In 1969, U.S. Attorney General John Mitchell offered some advice to reporters who were covering the new administration of President Richard Nixon.
“Watch what we do, not what we say,” Mitchell advised.
If his intended message was that actions speak louder than words, it was received the wrong way. Mitchell’s words were interpreted — not unreasonably — as meaning that what Nixon administration members said publicly didn’t necessarily represent what they thought privately and, as a consequence, anything they did say in public should be viewed with skepticism.
Students of history — Watergate, anyone? — know how that turned out.
But Mitchell & Co. were hardly the first group of politicians who said one thing in public about their policy preferences while doing little to nothing to advance their professed views.
Take new Gov. John Robert “J.B.” Pritzker. He and his spin doctors insist that he’s opposed to gerrymandering, the manipulation of legislative district boundary lines in a way that gives one party or the other an advantage on Election Day.
The governor and his spinners insist that he’ll veto legislation that would gerrymander state House and Senate districts after Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan oversees the drawing of new maps following the 2020 census.
But talk is, as Mitchell unintentionally suggested so many years ago, cheap.
If Pritzker really is the enthusiastic opponent of gerrymandering that he insists he is, he could use the bully pulpit of the governor’s office to try to persuade legislators to approve a proposed constitutional amendment that would ensure competitive election maps. The proposal, which would take map-drawing duties away from self-interested legislators and give it to a bipartisan citizens group, is trapped in the General Assembly. There’s no sign of movement and, for that matter, very few prospects for any.
Just a few months ago, the governor spoke enthusiastically of the need for a progressive income tax hike amendment to replace the current flat tax mandate in the Illinois Constitution. He pushed, prodded and pulled and, eventually, legislators approved his plan to put the issue up for a vote in the November 2020 election.
Pritzker wanted to pass the amendment because of his appetite for more state revenue, and he proved he was serious when he oversaw legislative efforts to get the measure on the ballot.
So he’s done it before on taxes, and he can do it again — if he wishes — on the “Fair Map” amendment being promoted by Change Illinois and the many thousands of people in this state who are tired of having no meaningful votes to cast in Illinois legislative races.
Pritzker’s support is crucial because, absent heavy public pressure, Democratic legislative leaders — House Speaker Michael Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton — would just prefer the proposed amendment die in some committee.
“We need him to use his influence to call for a vote on the Fair Map Amendment in the Senate and the House. Because we believe if there are votes in the two chambers, that we have the numbers (to pass it),” said Brad McMillen, co-chairman of Change Illinois and executive director of Bradley University’s Institute for Principled Leadership.
Actually, McMillen’s point isn’t quite as accurate as he might like it to be. State legislators — House and Senate Democrats, House and Senate Republicans — are free to say they support the Fair Map proposal because they are confident that Madigan and Cullerton will never permit a vote in both houses during the same legislative session.
Incumbents benefit from gerrymandering, so it’s hard to determine how they really feel about changing a process that benefits them at the public’s expense.
If the measure was put to a vote, they’d have to put their money where their mouths are. Maybe they would, and maybe they wouldn’t.
It would take a three-fifth vote in favor of the Fair Map amendment to get it on the ballot. If that were to happen, public opinion polls have indicated the measure would win overwhelming support from Illinois voters.
Here’s why it matters — when House and Senate districts (state Rep. Carol Ammons and state Sen. Chapin Rose) are drawn to produce pre-determined results, elections become pointless.
Interest — both from the public and among candidates — dwindles. In 2018, 54 of the 118 Illinois House races were uncontested and 20 of the 39 Senate races were uncontested. In races that featured two candidates, many of those running had no chance to win.
That serves politicians’ self-interest, but not the public interest.
Pritzker insists he’s against that kind of approach to legislative elections. But so did former Gov. Patrick Quinn, the self-proclaimed greatest political reformer in state history. But when Speaker Madigan passed gerrymandered maps on to him in 2011, Quinn obediently signed them and effectively said, “Thank you, sir. May I have another?”
Given his obvious lack of initiative in support of redistricting reform, Pritzker — no matter what he’s said in public or how many times he’s said it — looks like he plans on doing the same thing.
Jim Dey is a staff writer for The News-Gazette. His email is email@example.com.