DOUBEK: Loss of quality lawmakers should teach us a lesson

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State Rep. Elaine Nekritz | Karie Angell Luc~for Sun-Times Media

We are losing good, well-meaning lawmakers who sacrificed to try to improve Illinois.

Overlooked in the budget and school funding hullabaloo are the losses among lawmakers. Senate Republican Leader Christine Radogno of Lemont. GOP state Rep. Chad Hays of Catlin in Eastern Illinois. Democratic state Rep. Elaine Nekritz of Northbrook. Before that, it was GOP state Sen. Matt Murphy of Palatine and state Sen. Dan Kotowski of Park Ridge.


Can we learn from these departures? Can we turn exits into insight?

While many of us might reflexively think, “Great. Leave. Throw the bums out,” it’s not that simple. We’re losing institutional knowledge and experience from caring people who served.

Radogno left after failing at a “grand bargain,” following a 20-year career in Springfield. “We have to put aside personalities,” Radogno told us. “We have to prioritize what we want. Nobody gets 100 percent, but what do you absolutely have to have? When you negotiate, you need to understand and get in the skin of the person you’re talking to.”

Hays nailed the problem with our politics in announcing his departure. “Ego, money and power eclipse the desire of well-meaning and honest public servants and blame, press conferences and talking points have replaced governing. Sadly, voices of moderation and reason are increasingly elbowed out by well-financed fringe elements.” And that was before Gov. Bruce Rauner replaced key aides with people from the libertarian Illinois Policy Institute.

Can we fix what Hays describes? How do we move forward? Is it possible to end stalemates that hold humans hostage? What can citizens do to create a more constructive political environment?

I asked Nekritz, who served for 14 years and somehow managed, years ago, to oppose House Speaker Michael Madigan’s rules of operation and still rise to become an assistant majority leader. She also became a pension expert, having passed a reform attempt ultimately struck down by the Illinois Supreme Court.

The budget that passed again delayed some pension payments, she acknowledged.

“Discipline is going to continue to be really important because we’re going to have to pay down the backlog of bills and make the pension payments, all of which we can do,” she said, “but it requires discipline.”

Within Illinois and nationally, we’re living in a time of extreme polarization. Nekritz said it intensified when Rauner took office.

“When a governor comes in and draws a line in the sand and says, ‘You’re either with me or against me,’ well then, I have to pick a side, and this is the first time I felt I had to do that and so I think that chasm will continue to be there.”

Fifteen Republican representatives and one senator crossed that gulf to get a budget passed. Can that happen again? Democrats also were pressuring their leaders to craft a compromise some Republicans could support, Nekritz said. It will take that kind of all-out pressure to make that work again. “That’s a really hard path for members because you’re not only breaking with your leaders,” she said, “you’re breaking with your caucus and that’s a really hard thing to do.”

Nekritz crossed Madigan and survived. How?

When they have disagreed, “I have the opportunity to talk with him about it. … That’s what we should be doing.”

Some rules got changed. Floor amendments cannot be voted on immediately, but must sit for two hours. Committee amendments must be submitted a day before they are considered. Now, it takes 71 votes to get a bill out of the rules committee, rather than 118. That’s still a high threshold, but it’s lower.

Nekritz believes the General Assembly needs study committees for big topics, and empowered committee chairs with staff members who can develop policy expertise.

Perhaps, she said, Illinois ought to adopt an electoral system like California’s, where the top two vote-getters face off in a general election without regard to their party. “The impact of that is that there have been more centrists elected,” she noted.

Citizens, Nekritz said, need to know politicians are humans, too. “You might want to think back to whether your mother would approve of the message you’re sending before you send it.”

We also need to escape our echo chambers. “We as citizens have divided ourselves in communities that are more red or more blue, and our politicians reflect that.”

If that’s what we want, then we best prepare for more impasse and less productivity.

Or, we could learn from those leaving. We could encourage discipline, empathy, courage and civil conversation. Maybe, just maybe, that will create an opening for bipartisan compromise.

Madeleine Doubek is policy and civic engagement director for the Better Government Association. Follow her @mdoubek

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