Requiem for the blunt talkers of politics
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Is there anyone left in public office in Illinois who will say what they think, consequences be damned?
In the aftermath of the death of Judy Baar Topinka, this question gnaws at me. I suspect the answer is no, not really. I strongly suspect all of us will suffer as a result.
Sure, politics, particularly nationally, is as hyper-partisan and hyperbolic as ever, but much of that seems staged and stunt-like.
Topinka was called a “truth teller” at her memorial service last week, and that was the truth. We need truth tellers in Illinois government, politics and in public service, but modern-day campaigns and plain old fear seem to have snuffed out the blunt speakers.
Topinka was beloved because she was genuine. Anyone who met her could sense she was real and plain-speaking. She was unafraid of sharing unpopular views.
In the midst of this last election cycle, Republican governor nominee Bruce Rauner was doing his disciplined best to avoid mentioning details about the sorry state of Illinois finances and what it might take to start repairing them. He was running as the anti-tax-increasing Pat Quinn and he had the Illinois Republican Party apparatus and the top Republican legislative leaders marching in lockstep right along with him.
But some journalist asked former reporter Topinka about letting the Illinois income tax rate drop from 5 percent to 3.75 percent as it still is set to do in a couple of weeks. She went right off the reservation and said she believed the rate shouldn’t drop so drastically immediately: “Anything else would be such a shock to the system. Think of the government as a human body. It would be like a heart attack. No aspirin involved. I mean, kaboom. That would not be good.”
I can think of a handful of others in government and politics who said what they believed with regularity, often to their own pain and detriment. Former state senator and lieutenant governor candidate Grace Mary Stern was one, having once referred to her opponent, then-Lt. Gov George Ryan, as “the scum on the cocoa.”
Of her own husband, Hub Stern, who failed in a run for Congress, she once said, “Hub would have made a really terrific congressman … but he is an unsuccessful candidate. He talks too long, he’s a little bit boring, a little bit lawyerly in his presentations.”
And speaking of truth telling, many women in politics probably will hate that I’ll include in a column with feminists Topinka and Stern, one who might be more unlike them than any other: former Senate President James “Pate” Philip of suburban Wood Dale.
Over the years, I witnessed Philip deride gays and lesbians and most famously step in it at a 1994 Daily Herald editorial board meeting when he was asked about a Department of Children and Family Services caseworker who was responsible for the case of 19 children found abandoned in a decrepit Chicago apartment. “Of course, she was a minority. Her boss was a minority,” Philip said. “Some of them do not have the work ethics that we have. Secondly, they don’t tend to turn on or squeal on their fellow minorities.”
The outrage over that comment lasted for weeks, as it should have. Still, I’m sure Philip was saying what he believed, and what many other Illinoisans believed at the time.
Sometimes the words are outrageous. They sting. They ring of some truth, or some combination of all three. But far too often, the words and thoughts remain unspoken, buried in fear, political calculation and correctness. And we all miss an opportunity for argument. We miss an opportunity for painful growth. We miss a chance at honesty. And that cannot be good.
Madeleine Doubek is chief operating officer of Reboot Illinois.