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New governor deserves a little breathing room

Every new gal or guy at the top deserves a little honeymoon.

It’s only fair.

So as Bruce Rauner assumes the governorship in Illinois on Jan. 12, the first Republican to do so since 2003, he needs room to breathe.

OPINION

It may be useful to remember another newly elected CEO from Illinois who took office amid all the same watchwords of “change” and “fixing government.”

Barack Obama went to Washington with the jet fuel of high expectations and the conviction among those who voted for him that something new was in the wind.

A seismic shift. A significant correction.

It has been — as it often is — the radical difference between what a campaign promises and what government has the capacity to deliver.

Even for a Dartmouth summa cum laude with a Harvard MBA, there will be a steep learning curve for the new man at the top.

One of the promising changes in Gov.-elect Rauner’s post-election rhetoric has been an emphasis on compassion as well as competitiveness.

As he reviews every department and agency of state government, there’s one he might find that is already achieving those twin goals.

The Illinois Department of Human Rights is a small little operation created by then-Gov. Jim Thompson and headed, for the last 12 years, by Rocco Claps.

Its workforce and budget pale in comparison to the larger engines of government. Only 153 people work for DHR, compared to the thousands who work for the mega departments. And the budget of $14 million is a pittance compared to the billions required to run prisons and Medicaid.

But what this small little department has accomplished through Claps’ hard and collaborative work has been to give Illinois citizens a department of last resort.

Where gender and housing discrimination complaints can come to be worked out; where pregnant workers can find a place to argue for both their employment and their family; where people with physical and mental disabilities can be treated with dignity and respect.

All of those sound like platitudes, I realize. But nothing could be further from the truth. And Rocco Claps, 53, the first openly gay member of the state cabinet, has deep and abiding experience in being one of life’s “others.”

He is living proof that government requires patience as well as an understanding of policy. Never in Claps’ younger years would he have imagined that gay and lesbian couples could one day legally marry in the state of Illinois. But his bridge-building and quiet work helped make that happen.

And on top of it all, he has helped fund his department by creating new revenue streams, charging training fees to corporations for anti-discrimination education and other services.

As much as I have written about government’s flaws and failures, I never want to forget the public servants who bring honor to state government.

People like outgoing Director of Healthcare and Family Services Julie Hamos and ongoing Auditor General Bill Holland.

And Rocco Claps who, like the new governor, makes a compelling case for compassion as well as competitiveness.

Email: cmarin@suntimes.com

Twitter: @CarolMarin