Lessons for Gov.-Elect Rauner, General Assembly

Opinion: Columns

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Don Harmon

"Democracy is the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time." So said Winston Churchill to the British House of Commons in 1947. I heartily endorse the sentiment. And we are about to witness "Exhibit A" of the magnificence of democracy.

In January in the state of Illinois, we will participate in the peaceful transition of power from a Democratic administration to a Republican administration. All of the caustic criticisms in those toxic campaign TV ads will linger in the air, and suspicion and mistrust between the political parties will remain. But Pat Quinn will still turn over the keys to the governor's office to Bruce Rauner.

What does this mean for the state of Illinois? How will we govern in the wake of the November election? What did the voters say to those of us in politics?

A divided government has virtues and vulnerabilities. With a Democratic legislature and a Republican governor, I do not foresee more of the bold, progressive policy victories we achieved over the last six years. Marriage equality, abolition of the death penalty, expanding health insurance to thousands of low-income adults — none of these victories would likely be possible in an age of divided government. Bipartisan power sharing may help us achieve difficult things, but not dramatic things.

A divided government does give us the opportunity, however, to deal in a more bipartisan fashion with the nuts and bolts of government. For more than a decade, we have adopted Democratic budgets paid for with Democratic revenue proposals. Now, Gov. Rauner and the Republican Party will own the state budget and need to provide revenues adequate to pay for their proposals.

I fully expect the Democratic majorities in the General Assembly to cooperate with the governor to achieve fair and balanced budgets. But fair and balanced budgets will require something we haven't seen in recent years: the active engagement, sponsorship and affirmative votes of Republicans. The GOP has had the luxury of avoiding responsibility by voting "no" on necessary yet unpopular reforms. But now, with a governor of their own party, Republican legislators have responsibility for real, achievable solutions. This may be a rude awakening for my GOP friends but potentially good for Illinois. We shall see.

While divided government can lead to cooperation on certain issues, it leads to confrontation on others. With a Republican governor, the Democratic General Assembly will become even more important as the defender of progressive ideals. If Gov. Rauner advances proposals to do away with collective bargaining, adopt "right to work for less" proposals, repeal or lower the minimum wage or otherwise attack the bedrock of working families in Illinois, he should gird for a fierce fight. 

In making these predictions, I am mindful of what voters told us on Nov. 4. They elected a Republican governor but reelected Democratic super majorities in the Illinois House and Senate. They endorsed key pieces of our party's platform with overwhelming approval of Democratic-initiated referendum questions: increasing the minimum wage, protecting a woman's right to comprehensive health care, protecting victims' rights, ensuring protection of voting rights and asking those who earn more to pay more for the government services they expect.

The slow pace of job and wage recovery from the Great Recession has frustrated families both in Illinois and across the country. Here, the majority of voters embraced change in the state's executive branch while maintaining Democratic majorities in the legislature. 

In the months leading up to Nov. 4, I spoke personally with hundreds of voters. All I met viewed Pat Quinn as the honest, decent, hard-working public servant I have always known him to be. I believe that voters were simply frustrated and out of patience. For better or worse, the governor "wears the jacket" for the battles not won, just as he or she enjoys the lion's share of credit for the victories. 

The General Assembly and the new governor should take these lessons to heart.

Democrat Don Harmon, a lifelong resident of Oak Park, is Illinois Senate President Pro Tempore. He was elected Nov. 4 to a fifth term as senator representing the 39th District, which includes parts of Chicago, suburban Cook County, including Oak Park, and DuPage County.

Reader Comments

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Plain Thinker from River Forest, Illinois  

Posted: November 20th, 2014 2:32 PM

Looks like Rauner will be 'gridding for a fight' because he did not run on any social issues; just fiscal ones. In Don's mindset, protecting his friends at the SEIU is now considered progressive. My how the world has changed.

T. Cavenagh from Oak Park  

Posted: November 20th, 2014 2:11 PM

Illinois voters did not, in any meaningful sense of the word, 'elect' Democrat supermajorities. Dozens of state races were run by candidates with no opposition (including Senator Harmon) because the state was remapped by Democrats to make two-party elections in those districts prohibitively uncompetitive. A fairer way to describe what happened is that politicians chose their constituencies, not the reverse.

Taxpayer from OP  

Posted: November 18th, 2014 10:04 PM

I urge you to stop the unfunded mandates. Such as HB 5485 Firefighters minimum manning bill. This is nothing more than a back door tax for us and should left to the local government to negotiate minimum manning not the legislature or better yet an arbitrator. We urge you to vote NO on HB5485 NOW. Thank you for your service.

UnelectDon from oak Park  

Posted: November 18th, 2014 8:21 PM

Senator Harmon is a fraud when it comes to honest, good government. He's called out even in Blagohevich's book for attempting to cut shaaaady deals. If Blago calls you out, it must be REALLY corrupt. Regardless, he was sen. rock's whipping boy and will never be more than some self-professed "elite" political hack who put in his time. Ask any legislator in Springfield - he's the most self-important arrogant legislator they've ever met. He's not liberal - he's an easy sellout.

James Stanton  

Posted: November 18th, 2014 2:35 PM

@Bruce Samuels, er, I mean "Citizen", you still seem a little peeved you could not muster more than 3 signatures at the Farmers Market. Sounds like more sour grapes, Bruce. Now please resign from the Library Board.

Smirking Jerk  

Posted: November 18th, 2014 1:40 PM

Where were you in stopping SB16, which will cause a $4m to $9m hole in D97's budget? Who do you represent again? Apparently downstate interests and not Cook, Suburban Cook or DuPage. What a fraud. I hope Rauner just laughs at you.

Citizen Vs Machine  

Posted: November 18th, 2014 1:31 PM

According to Huffington Post, Harmon accepted over $134K in donations from fracking interests this election. I wonder how this will play out with his fellow so-called environmentally friendly progressives. Things might get interesting in the "The Wolves of Woodbine" (DPOP) tent at the Farmers Market next spring. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/will-reynolds/profile-in-cowardice-sena_b_6148510.html

Citizen Vs Machine  

Posted: November 18th, 2014 1:17 PM

The Machine Democrat bragging voters willfully maintained Democratic majorities in the legislature by choice. This was the product of gerrymandering and the Machine-led stifling of the Yes for Independent Maps movement. And the passive-aggressive approval of one-party rule that has, in essence, led us to a 67% tax increase, billions in unpaid bills, and zero pension reform.

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