Two long-time Democrats – and old friends – crossed swords this week in the Tribune. They grew up together and clerked on the Supreme Court together. Newt Minow, FCC chairman under President Kennedy, explained why he would be voting for Bruce Rauner for governor. Abner Mikva, former congressman and chief judge of the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, wrote that Newt was “wrong, wrong, wrong.”
Newt quoted Kennedy’s statement that “sometimes party loyalty asks too much.” Abner wrote that Kennedy “never suggested that personal relationships should trump … important political values.”
It would be tough to find two more gifted lawyers or public-spirited leaders. I supported Abner in his congressional races almost 50 years ago in Hyde Park, and later in Evanston. He would have been a great Supreme Court justice — or a great president. So would Newt, with whom I’ve practiced law for over 40 years.
On this one, I think Newt is right. But much of what Abner wrote is right, too. Pat Quinn has made some excellent appointments, including trustees at the University of Illinois. And he supported pension reform.
But the single, dominant issue facing Illinois right now is how to bring fiscal discipline to state and local governments — to avert bankruptcy — to keep from becoming Detroit or Greece. We’re in this mess because generations of Illinois elected officials rolled over when the public service unions demanded more money, better terms in collective bargaining agreements, more generous pensions and free health care. These officials didn’t have the spine to turn to the public — the taxpayers — and say: “This is the tab; we’re going to raise taxes to pay for it.” So the commitments were made to the unions, and the tab was passed on to the next generation. And the mountains of debt kept accumulating.
Who can best turn this around? Who understands best why it must be turned around?
Pat Quinn is a nice man. But does anyone, even Abner Mikva, think he has the strength and willpower to clean the stables? He did cheerlead for pension reform. His gimmick of suspending legislative salaries got some headlines, and some chuckles. But Speaker Madigan is the one who got it done.
The teachers unions are muscular and assertive. Their leaders fought charter schools because teachers in those schools don’t pay dues to their unions. They’re fighting now to keep their generous pensions. If the Supreme Court dumps this problem back in the lap of the next governor, which candidate would personally roll up his sleeves — understanding the direction we need to go — and negotiate to get there? Governor Quinn is a nice fellow; but does anyone, even Abner Mikva, think he can explain why discount rates are important, or why the private sector has gravitated to defined contribution plans? Bruce Rauner can — and has.
Shifting pension funding responsibility, gradually, to local school districts makes all the sense in the world. Cost causers should be cost bearers. Speaker Madigan has promoted that — not Gov. Quinn.
Charter schools are the way to achieve fundamental school reform, at least in big urban districts like Chicago. Speaker Madigan has done far more to promote charters than Gov. Quinn. So, by the way, has Rauner.
It isn’t about “personal relationships” vs. “political values.” On the truly big issues, we have to get it right. Kennedy believed that party loyalty should come second.