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Pampered, spoiled and unable to care for themselves

Thursday, Jan 31, 2013

* Will Caskey, a regular commenter here and one of the state’s top opposition researchers, penned an op-ed for Crain’s about Debbie Halvorson’s self-published memoir “Playing With The Big Boys” and extrapolates what the real problem is in Illinois

I have read her 147-page book and find that it unintentionally provides some insights into how Springfield works — or, more precisely, doesn’t work. Take, for example, her explanation for voting for then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s ill-fated Gross Receipts Tax despite not liking it at all:

    I quickly piped up and said that it was a terrible idea and it wouldn’t work. I was told otherwise and to watch it move through the legislature. Under my breath I was mouthing, ‘Not with my vote’…Those of us on the Senate Executive Committee (which is made up solely of Senate leadership) were pressured to vote on the measure to move it to the full Senate for discussion.

In Ms. Halvorson’s view, her voting record isn’t her fault; then-Senate President Emil Jones or, later, U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi are to blame. Even worse, as the memoirist tells it, Ms. Pelosi didn’t listen to Ms. Halvorson’s advice about her own district […]

Write it down, ladies: “Playing ball with the big boys” means doing whatever the big boys say even when you think it’s awful. And then you lose your election and self-publish a book about it. Ms. Halvorson’s career is a tragedy in two parts: She did what she was told, and then there were consequences.

* The problem

(L)eaders in both legislative chambers in Illinois have an unusual amount of power: Committees are a formality at best, and legislation is almost always advanced as amendments to empty “shell bills” after last-minute deals. Rank-and-file legislators have almost no reason to raise their own money, or advance their own bills and whip their own votes, or show any other typical political skill. All they have to do is show up and vote as they’re told. And it works, right up until they try to move up into Congress, where a decent campaign costs over $2 million and no one is interested in giving them that much money.

That explains what happened to Ms. Halvorson. She went from Springfield to Washington and got clobbered.

And that, in a nutshell, is Illinois: We suck because of strong party leadership, not despite it. Ms. Halvorson and politicians like her are just the logical outcome of a top-heavy power structure. The setup has its benefits, sometimes, when both chambers and the governor have a minimally functional relationship. But whether that relationship exists or not, individual members are free to be knuckleheads, so they are. Democrats in Illinois don’t have to be smart, or good at their own fundraising, or effective at legislating, so they aren’t. When they face tough votes, they complain about having to take them instead of following the best path to re-election. When they have to raise their own money, they complain that the party hasn’t come through. When they face the consequences to their own actions and records, they’re astonished.

* However, it’s not always this way. Kurt Erickson takes a look at how sub-caucuses have often held sway in the Illinois GA

In the frenzied final hours of the 2005 spring session of the Illinois General Assembly, the push to finalize a new state budget suddenly ground to a halt when a bloc of Democratic lawmakers announced they couldn’t support the spending plan.

Without their votes, there was no way the Democratic majority could adopt a budget without Republican input, raising speculation that the session could go into overtime.

Facing the prospect of being stuck in Springfield during the summer months, House Speaker Michael Madigan called the members of the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus into his private office near the House floor to try to find a way to meet their needs and keep the budget-making process on track. Hours later, members of the caucus announced they were back on board. No terms of the negotiations were ever outlined, but Republicans pointed to the insertion into the budget of hundreds of millions of dollars for local projects as an example of how the deal likely was sealed. […]

The incident is just one example of the role that caucuses can play in the legislative process. And, with Democrats now holding super-majorities in the Senate and the House, the informal coalitions could become an even bigger factor in what gets done and what doesn’t on the floor of the House and Senate. […]

In theory, the majorities held by Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton could allow them to ignore the threat of a veto from the governor.

Cullerton, however, believes the possibility of that happening is “exaggerated’’ because of the diverse nature of the Democratic caucus. In other words, just because they are Democrats doesn’t mean they see eye to eye on every issue.

“We have numerous caucuses. We have to compromise within our caucuses,” Cullerton says.

And last year, Senate Democratic incumbents raised hundreds of thousands of dollars on their own, which was then supplemented by money from their leader. It was quite impressive.

* But, yeah, legislative leaders are often like ward committeemen and their members are like constituents. They are coddled and serviced into submission. And when that doesn’t work, the hammer comes down.

- Posted by Rich Miller        


28 Comments
  1. - Mike M - Thursday, Jan 31, 13 @ 9:33 am:

    Surprising.

    I can’t believe things are this bad…if they were, why are we just hearing about it now?!?

    You think someone might have said something along the way….


  2. - ZC - Thursday, Jan 31, 13 @ 9:40 am:

    For Democrats, this theory also arguably works for Rod Blagojevich’s unmemorable career in Washington D.C. On the other hand Jan Schakowsky has definitely emerged as a player and made the jump successfully from the IL House to Washington, although I suppose you could argue her district is so solidly Dem, she’s never been in serious danger of losing a general.


  3. - lincolnlover - Thursday, Jan 31, 13 @ 9:41 am:

    Was the pension payment skipped in 2005 because of Madigan’s “compromise” with the sub-caucuses?
    Just wondering.


  4. - OneMan - Thursday, Jan 31, 13 @ 9:43 am:

    I guess I always thought it would just make logical sense if you were an elected legislator to work on doing your fundraising to some extent.

    Yeah it sucks, but to be completely dependent on someone requires you to dance to their tune. If you have to dance to their tune, why to some degree go to Springfield? Yeah I am sure being a state rep is cool and being someone who either can or is seen as being able to do something for others is cool. But do you really want to be in a situation where that can be more or less snatched away from you?


  5. - ZC - Thursday, Jan 31, 13 @ 9:44 am:

    And like any generally-informative theory, you paint with too broad a brush, you taint some very hard working individual House Dems. He comes up a lot here but case in point, someone like State Representative Greg Harris.


  6. - Senator Clay Davis - Thursday, Jan 31, 13 @ 9:46 am:

    Caskey raises some good points definitely. The political culture in Illinois doesn’t allow legislators to cultivate the requisite skills in legislating or fundraising, no less anything resembling statesmanship.

    However, consider the source. Caskey is hocking for Toi, so this editorial is clearly a effort to discredit his opponent by making a broad, faux good government argument about “the system.” He’s mostly right, but still take it with a grain of salt.


  7. - Will Caskey - Thursday, Jan 31, 13 @ 9:47 am:

    I like that the lede on this has gotten progressively meaner as it gets repeated. I honestly started out entertaining myself after reading her book for my day job.

    But yeah this is a situation. I don’t even know if it’s a criticism per see: look at the U.S. Congress for what happens when the leadership structure is a lot weaker.


  8. - Pot calling kettle - Thursday, Jan 31, 13 @ 9:49 am:

    While Caskey’s assessment is true of some legislators, I think many (maybe most) of the GA members are smart, good at fundraising, and effective at legislating. However, they also know that if they stray too far from the leadership, their committee assignments will change, their bills will go nowhere, and major donors will not send checks.

    On top of that, we have a generally uninvolved citizenry that does not push their legislators except on the most controversial bills.

    However, if enough folks flood the statehouse with calls, a bill will stop in its tracks. That’s why the controversial stuff gets run through in a day; any delay that allows phone calls to start will result in a loss of necessary support from easily spooked members.


  9. - Amalia - Thursday, Jan 31, 13 @ 9:55 am:

    “Write it down, ladies: “Playing ball with the big boys” ….”

    What the what?!?


  10. - Chad - Thursday, Jan 31, 13 @ 9:55 am:

    The legislator-to-congressman transition is always interesting to watch. Schock and Schakowski (as well as Ewing, Biggert, Gutierrez, and many other before them)are great examples of people who understood that when you transition to Congress, you are “on your own”, as compared to state legislators. That means you have to think about your positions, raise your own cash, and generally figure out how to make your way through the system. You have to get along with people. Inaccurate statements and unfulfilled commitments are remembered, and quickly sort the speaker into the reject pile. Halvorson failed to recognize the difference and was quickly dropped by federal the public policy and lobbying communities. She was uneven, uninformed, unavailable, and occasionally a bit unpleasant in her DC work — and you can’t get away with that unless you have been in Congress for 20 years or so. Her book might be a useful read for the GA members thinking of a congressional run — that is — how not to approach the task. As for the current primary, perhaps she can stumble through the process as a beneficiary of the African-American politics, but I somehow doubt she will make it.


  11. - Oswego Willy - Thursday, Jan 31, 13 @ 9:59 am:

    1) Take the Caskey/Toi connection for what it’s worth, it is what it is, so take the grain of salt and use it.

    2) To the post, there are a ridiculous few in the GA that can raise every dollar needed to run for re-election and the support of the Caucus is incredibily important, and when the Leaders ask, you need to deliver.

    They are not called “Mushrooms” for nothing. They call themselves and/or their colleagues “Mushrooms”

    The voting aspect, and “bad votes” comes more into play with the “seat” the Mushroom is sitting in. If MJM knows its a Target, it leans opposed to the position/vote, chances are MJM will try to peel the Mushroom off, while still getting what the Speaker wants. On the few times MJM needs the Mushroom to go against the district, MJM provides the cover, and “that’s that”

    I always thought of the Caucuses and the Leaders as in Goodfellas, and I posted this in a Caption Contest for MJM and I think its appropriate again:

    “All the Mushrooms get from the Speaker is protection from other guys looking to defeat them. That’s what it’s all about. That’s what the voters can never understand - that what the Speaker and the House Dem Organization offers is protection for the kinds of guys who can’t go to the voters and win. They’re like the “Green House” for Mushrooms.”

    Now, when those Mushrooms run for congress or the Upper Chamber in THIS example, new rules apply.

    Just part of the game. Unless a Mushroom can raise $400K, go on their own, get no Primary challenge from its Leader, then you may get independence, and sometimes, for the Chamber, that ain’t good either.

    Tough Dance, Crazy Rules, Silly Votes and Odd voting Records … welcome to Caucus Politics.


  12. - He Makes Ryan Look Like a Saint - Thursday, Jan 31, 13 @ 10:00 am:

    Many years ago, I would argue against term limits. I was the typical “let the voters decide” guy. I am now a Proponent of Term Limits. The consolidated power of Madigan has been way too much for too long. Term limits would prevent that for BOTH parties.


  13. - Will Caskey - Thursday, Jan 31, 13 @ 10:09 am:

    One point of clarification: I’m not calling for reform. Like I said above, a weaker leadership structure has its own potential gridlock problems. Any way you set up a representative democracy is going to have serious functional issues just because it is representative.


  14. - Will Caskey - Thursday, Jan 31, 13 @ 10:20 am:

    As far as Sen. Hutchinson goes: yes, I’m working for her and yes, I originally read Halvorson’s book because of it.

    I’m also a researcher. I write things that are unkind, unfair and sometimes unwarranted, but never things that are untrue.


  15. - Oswego Willy - Thursday, Jan 31, 13 @ 10:29 am:

    - Will Caskey -,

    I wasn not taking a shot at you, quite the contrary, I was saying that others should take what you are “saying” with a grain of salt, not what you “say”.

    A good Oppo “guy” can tear down their client just a harshly as they tear down the oppostion. That is the job, the target is the target. I take nothing away from your “information”, and heck, I take nothing away as to whay you are informing us.

    I appreciate your candor and honesty.

    I wished you luck before, and I do so again.


  16. - Skoein4ever - Thursday, Jan 31, 13 @ 10:40 am:

    “But yeah this is a situation. I don’t even know if it’s a criticism per see: look at the U.S. Congress for what happens when the leadership structure is a lot weaker.”

    I think this is the big question. Yea, Debbie did not have to be a political entrepreneur in Springfield, raising her own money and building her own Rolodex, but, as a result she was not primarily representing her donors as she was in Washington.

    I am not sure which system is better. I still think strong parties tend to make states more governable, but maybe it really depends on who is leading that party.


  17. - Pot calling kettle - Thursday, Jan 31, 13 @ 10:43 am:

    ==there are a ridiculous few in the GA that can raise every dollar needed to run for re-election==

    This does not necessarily imply a lack of skill. Unless they can self-fund, they have to get serious $$$ from big donors, and you cannot get those big $$$ without support from leadership or, occasionally, some other umbrella group.


  18. - Oswego Willy - Thursday, Jan 31, 13 @ 10:49 am:

    ===This does not necessarily imply a lack of skill. Unless they can self-fund, they have to get serious $$$ from big donors, and you cannot get those big $$$ without support from leadership or, occasionally, some other umbrella group. ===

    Which is why it’s a ridiculous few that can pull off that dance. Not saying “can’t” as in physically “can’t” becasue the levers in place almost prevent that scenario from occuring.


  19. - Lobo Y Olla - Thursday, Jan 31, 13 @ 10:51 am:

    -I’m also a researcher. I write things that are unkind, unfair and sometimes unwarranted, but never things that are untrue.-
    That would be a neat trick. I’ll hold you to that.


  20. - walkinfool - Thursday, Jan 31, 13 @ 10:59 am:

    ===I write things that are unkind, unfair, and unwarranted, but never things that are untrue==

    Another true statement.

    The case is overstated here. Sometimes it does make more sense to let the whole body decide an issue and not hold it up in Committee.

    ==Rank and file legislators have almost no reason to raise their own money, or advance their own bills and whip their own votes==

    Also overstated, in that many do those things anyway. The reasons that motivate them lie outside of Springfield.


  21. - dupage dan - Thursday, Jan 31, 13 @ 11:07 am:

    The fungus among us. Problematic when it “reigns”.

    Am I correct in remembering that this set up has to do, at least in part, to the shrinking of the legislature due to Pat Quinns efforts in the past? And that this led to the concentration of power in the hands of the speaker?

    Can’t wait until April showers and will be looking for the morels. They taste great!


  22. - wordslinger - Thursday, Jan 31, 13 @ 11:47 am:

    –And last year, Senate Democratic incumbents raised hundreds of thousands of dollars on their own,–

    Did not know that. Is that a trend? Independent fundraising goes hand-in-hand with independent thought, lol.


  23. - Skeeter - Thursday, Jan 31, 13 @ 1:46 pm:

    Caskey’s analysis of Halvorsen is right on.

    Even now she’s claiming that she really didn’t want to vote for certain thing in Congress, but the President called.

    In Springfield, she did what she was told and moved up. She doesn’t seem to get that outside Springfield that may not be the best strategy. She doesn’t seem to understand that “somebody powerful made me do it” is not a very good explanation.


  24. - VanillaMan - Thursday, Jan 31, 13 @ 3:08 pm:

    Caskey is biased and you don’t believe oppositional researchers on anything because of their bias.

    Additionally, we have a number of GA veterans running the White House right now and I think it would not be a stretch to believe they might have a few disagreements about this perspective as well - or does this stuff not apply to them.

    You don’t go to Washington accidentally. There must be something there, even when you don’t understand what it could be. How about a bit more intellectual humility?

    Some folks think they know more than they really do. This sounds like one of those cases, in my opinion.


  25. - Skeeter - Thursday, Jan 31, 13 @ 3:12 pm:

    VMan, if you think Will’s biased, point out his error.

    Otherwise, stop whining.


  26. - Will Caskey - Thursday, Jan 31, 13 @ 4:15 pm:

    VanillaMan- biased against whom? In favor of what? Like I said above, I’m not taking a stand against Democratic leadership- hell, I’ve worked for a bunch of them. Honestly I don’t think this situation could change even if Madigan/Cullerton personally decided tomorrow that it had to.

    With regards to the rank-and-file…well if I’m incorrect then who cares what I write, they’re forces to be reckoned with anyway. And to be sure, some do stand on their own two feet. I’ve worked for several such individuals.

    It is pretty critical of Halvorson yes, but I challenge you to point out how I took those passages out of context.


  27. - Soccertease - Thursday, Jan 31, 13 @ 9:32 pm:

    Back in the day I went to a national Comptroller’s Office conference. I had dinner with the state comptroller of VA. He was a CPA and an elected official. We talked about governmental accounting topics-how refreshing! Il Comptroller Burris was there but he wasn’t discussing technical accounting issues. Point is, other state’s have limitations to their politics when it comes to getting the job done, IL doesn’t.


  28. - VanillaMan - Thursday, Jan 31, 13 @ 11:55 pm:

    Don’t be fooled, an oppositional researcher is not unbiased anymore than a lobbyist. They don’t work pro bono, and they always remembers who pays them. Pollsters work with numbers and facts too, but they will make sure their results deliver what is expected as well when they are hired for a political hit, I mean, job.


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