Policy and Politics in the Land of Lincoln

Suzanne Strassberger

Suzanne Strassberger writes about the personalities, minutiae, and back-stories behind decision-making in Springfield.

Policy and Politics in the Land of Lincoln

“If you want happiness for a lifetime, help the next generation.” Old Chinese proverb

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Last week in Springfield, leaders from the Jewish community and the Jewish Federation agencies were shocked to hear legislators and the Governor's top people make not so veiled threats to funding for human services if the State's temporary tax increase sunsets on Jan. 1, 2015. 

The Jewish community is divided on tax and revenue policy; always has been and always will be. 

But the Jewish community is united around the importance of human services. They give generously, $81 million last year in the Chicago area alone. They volunteer, spending long hours helping people directly and serving on agency committees and Boards of Directors.  They advocate, trekking down to Springfield and Washington, DC to speak out for programs that help those in need.

Some Americans have accused human service recipients as being the "undeserving poor," lazy and manipulative and so deserving of their fate of destitution.  Others, more subtly, suggested that human services, however well-meaning, might actually promote dependency, and thus should only be given with many strings attached.  The shame of being a recipient was part of the cost associated with getting help.

These themes are not part of the Jewish liturgy or personal narrative.  

Perhaps this is because of Maimonides. He was a twelfth century Spanish Jew who is frequently quoted for his "Eight Levels of Giving" which he articulated in his commentary on the Jewish Laws Governing Giving to the Poor. Worthiness of the recipient and fear of promoting continued dependency are never mentioned as points to be considered. Nor is the status of the budget of the giver a point to be considered.

Perhaps this is because many Jews are only one or two generations removed from being vulnerable and in need of the kindness of human services.  We grew up with stories of the Great Depression and the Holocaust.

Perhaps it is because those who have turned to human service agencies for help are often proud to tell the story of how they were once recipients and now are able to give back.  It is a badge of honor.

Perhaps it is because we worry about our children, siblings, neighbors, and friends and want to make sure that human services will be there for them, should they need it.

On some level, I assume that our elected leaders share our belief in the power of human services to build healthy individuals, families, entire communities.  I like to think they know that human services provided in the community, in homes and schools and centers, is a respectful and cost-effective approach to helping those in need, from newborns to the frail elderly; from those suffering the pain of abuse to those with developmental disabilities; from those challenged by mental illness and addiction to those challenged to pay the bills on a minimum wage job. 

Listening to the outrage of our Jewish leaders in Springfield at the callous use of funding for human services as a pawn to force the Jewish community into providing public support for a tax increase made me rethink it all. There is always enough money in the budget if something is important; witness funding for Presidential libraries. So, why is it ok to even suggest taking from human services?

What elected leader is brave enough to say? "I will find the revenues necessary to make sure that human services continue to be provided in my community."

How she left

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Some thought that my mother, Alice Howell Friedman, chose to die in hospice after a severe spinal fracture because she believed that using medical technology to extend life when faced with a poor prognosis was wrong.

She did believe that.  In August, 2010, she read "Letting go" by Atul Gawande in the New Yorker and proceeded to make sure that her children, her friends, the Applewood health care staff at the senior residence where she lived , and everyone else she could interest in it read it too.  Dr. Gawande writes about a medical system excellent at starving off death but not knowing when to stop. He calls out the importance of building a health-care system that helps dying patients achieve what is most important to them at the end of life: avoiding suffering, being with family, having the touch of others, being mentally aware, and not becoming a burden to others.   

Some thought that my mother chose to die in hospice because she was tired of the daily fight against the pain of spinal stenosis and old injuries. She feared growing blind from macular degeneration.  Having fought her way back to independent living at her beloved Applewood from quadruple heart surgery, an insidious flu, and a broken elbow,  perhaps this was one incident too many.  She was almost 92 and weary. Yet, on the night of the final fall, she had carefully arranged her breakfast tray with a note to the health aide to put blueberries on her cereal. George Elliot's Daniel Deronda was open on the table.

 A fracture alone is not life threatening. However, my Mom, the public health nurse and a Professor Emeritus of Nursing, understood that three months in a full body cast in a nursing home, the medical recommendation,  might have brought a slow death through pneumonia  and almost certainly would have  resulted in being bed bound the rest of her life. So, somehow- and this I do not understand- she and the palliative care doctor came to an agreement that she could choose dying and death over being kept alive in a nursing home. He signed the papers for her to go to hospice and then called her daughters to tell them to come home.

I think my mother chose hospice, not because of her conviction that medical technology needed to be kept in its place at the end of life or because of a fear of suffering and decline, but because she wanted to die, without pain, in a loving place cared for by her two daughters. She knew my sister Elizabeth and I needed the guidance of the hospice staff to give her comfort and company in her last bedroom overlooking a winter garden and birds at the birdfeeder.  We learned how to spoon-feed her pureed food, how to stroke her to calmness when she hallucinated falling, how to soothe her parched lips when she could no longer swallow.  Though the morphine took away her ability to speak; it never took away her presence and so we held her hands and talked into her eyes that gazed back peacefully into ours.

In ten years, my Mom's choice of hospice over medical intervention will be seen as the obvious choice, or so I hope. But on the day she made that choice, January 8, 2014, it was viewed as remarkable.

In dying as she lived, my mother did it her way and in so doing, showed us all how to leave.  I miss her.

The SNAP Challenge

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It is glorious for a mother to watch her family dig happily into the bounty of a wonderful meal.  And painful for her to watch her children go to bed hungry as she locks the refrigerator.   

Food generosity is grounded in the goodness of the world. So, why is it that SNAP, formerly known as food stamps, was cut in November and is on the dock to be cut again?

One reason is that spending for SNAP has grown over the past four years as more Americans became poor. Another reason is bad timing: the Farm Bill, which includes SNAP, is up for reauthorization this year and anything being reauthorized is a target for budget hawks. And finally, there is a public perception that the program is too generous.

I am testing out that theory by doing the SNAP challenge.

A pure SNAP challenge week would have meant shopping in the neighborhoods where the only available grocery stores are grimy, dimly lit, and stocked with sad vegetables and bags of junk food.  I would have had to skip my stockpile of coffee beans, wine, and frozen chocolate chip cookies, a dinner party, and two work-related meals. Also, I would have had to follow the Challenge timeline (nov.20-27) rather than choosing seven consecutive days when I have control over work and family and could resist take-out meals and Starbucks. Instead I am doing SNAP-light.

It is still hard.

The good news is that shopping for a family of three on a weekly budget of $94.50 ($31.50 per person) is doable once you have the basics of rice, potatoes, and oil. I bought generic peanut butter, mac and cheese boxes, frozen OJ, milk, eggs, cheap bread, and elderly-looking carrots. Dinner is built around what the Dining sections of the newspaper call comfort dishes: Middle Eastern mujadara , Indian chana punjari, Mexican chili, Hungarian-Jewish hotdog goulash and cabbage noodles, Italian pasta, olive oil, and garlic, American fried eggs and hash browns.  Cheap healthy food prepared as our grandmothers prepared it; though our grandmothers had all day to cook while I have to squeeze it in after work.

The bad news is that, six days into SNAP, we are gaining weight. My grandmothers were plump. Maybe that is why so many people coming out of the discount grocery store are obese.

Other bad news this week: getting cranky when my husband and son take second helpings of leftovers meant to be saved for lunch and having to wait two hungry hours after work because there were no vegetables, nuts, or fruit to nibble on while I fix supper.

My dad grew up poor in the Depression. He never talked about those days though it seemed to be the reason he always chose the cheaper option: one secondhand car, small house with one bathroom, when he could have easily afforded more. But his cardinal rule was to never, never skimp on spending money for food.

So, on Saturday, when forced to choose fading mustard greens over sprightly green kale, I thought about that.  For my dad, being rich was being rich enough to buy whatever food you saw and craved. 

The almost 48 million children, seniors, disabled, and working poor Americans who rely on SNAP will never be "rich enough" as long as they depend on SNAP. Even in families where the adults are working full time but still poor, SNAP isn't enough because their food allotment is carefully ratcheted down for every extra dollar earned. Food insecurity, buried deep in their consciousness, will always be part of their psyche just as it was for my dad.

Stories are told of those who spend their SNAP benefits on steak, brie, and lox. Do we really think it is evil to buy a steak? The consequence is evil, though, because splurging means that the household will run out of food early in the month rather than later.  It means three weeks of food pantries, soup kitchens, and empty stomachs rather than the one week which is now routine for most people.

Those who say that the SNAP program is too generous should try it for a week.

How far will politicians go before they blink and compromise?

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Would members of the Illinois State Legislature risk a shutdown of state government or a state government default in pursuit of principles?

In Washington DC, Congress has stepped out on the precipice of disaster. The shutdown of the federal government is creating pockets of problems for people--from South Dakota ranchers stranded in a snowstorm to newlyweds unable to process their new names with Social Security to working mothers struggling to find day care because their local Head Start centers are closed. The federal argument began when one side declared that they would not pass a budget if it included funding for the Affordable Care Act. But this week, constituents including the business community expressed their dismay and polls reported that most of the public blamed the Republicans for the shut-down. Some began to retreat on their position. Then the Democrats, smelling blood, took up the fight and began asking for changes to Sequestration decisions before they would sign off on a deal.

As I write this, it looks like the Congress is coming to consensus around a plan to reopen the federal government and extend its borrowing authority over the next few months. This is good news. But the bad--or principled--behavior of Congress, depending on your perspective, has had consequences. Economists say that there has been extensive damage to growth, employment, and interest rates. 

Would the Illinois Legislature--leaders and sub-caucuses--go that far to be true to their positions?

No.  Leadership of the Legislature would not put the State at risk of such disaster, nor allow their members to do so. Members of the Legislature go through a vetting process by their political parties in order to secure resources--funding and campaign power--to be elected. Some can and do go it alone but few choose to do so.  From time to time, there are flashes of independence from the sub-caucuses who have the potential power to derail decision-making. But the smaller groups within the Democrat and Republican parties would all concede rather than then shut down state government. There is something to be said for party discipline.

And yet.

How far will state politicians be willing to go to pass a pension reform bill if it means angering the Chicago Tribune and the Civic Committee because the proposal doesn't cut deeply enough into pension benefits or angering the unions because it cuts too deeply? Legislators frame their positions as principles: to save the State from fiscal disaster by significantly reducing benefits or to respect state employees who have paid their pension payments every year and are now the fall guys because legislators and Governors chose not to pay the government share into the pension funds?  One approach calls for deep cuts; the other for new taxes to pay for the shortfall created by fiscal irresponsibility. Status quo means state resources are being squeezed by the growing pension liabilities, now approaching $100 million.

Our precipice is not the State Budget or the State's borrowing authority but rather the pension debt. How close to this precipice will the State of Illinois need to be before a plurality of state legislators comes to a compromise position on pension reform, the leadership allows them to vote on the bill, and the Governor signs the bill?

Fifty years later

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Fifty years ago this week, four little girls were killed in the Birmingham church bombing. My dad took me with his friends from synagogue to a memorial service at the Boston Commons. It was the first time I saw "Negroes" other than our cleaning lady. The first time I was alone with my dad, without my siblings or my mom. The first time I thought about injustice, not as history like the Holocaust, but as alive needing tending to.  During these days of Awe; of introspection, what has changed and what has stayed the same?

In 1963, "Negroes" was the politically correct term, "integration" was a progressive goal, and there was no Black Caucus in the Illinois State Legislature.

The history of Illinois black state legislators began in 1876 when John W. E. Thomas, born a slave in Alabama, was elected to the Legislature.  However, it wasn't until 1966 when, under the leadership of the State Senator Harold Washington, they began thinking about pulling together the growing number of black legislators into an effective interest group.  Three years later, the Black Legislative Caucus was formed. 

In 1963, there were 10 black legislators. Today, there are 30. More importantly, in 1963, black legislators controlled 4.2% of the seats in the Illinois legislature. By 2013, this had grown to 16.8% of the Legislature. (The Legislature shrunk in size.)

Black legislators sit in positions of power on Senate and House leadership teams. This means that they have a voice in strategic issues such as the decennial legislative remap process, before the rank-and-file legislators even view proposals. They chair committees, controlling the flow of bills. They are well positioned as inside decision-makers.

However, black legislators also work together as a separate force, independent of their loyalty to the Speaker of the House or the Senate President or the Governor.

When the Black Caucus takes a position, politicians listen. The power of black legislators comes from their solidarity. At the end of session when legislators are eager to wrap it up and go home, if word goes out that the Black Caucus is holding back their votes because of specific demands, some people groan, knowing it could delay and even change the dynamics of who loses and who wins.  Advocates for the poor, though, rejoice when the Caucus takes a stand because it is almost always on behalf of low income populations, who are also African-American, and who have little voice on their own.

Caucus demands generally focus on the budget. The ask may be broad, as it was this year, when the Black Caucus wanted specific Medicaid cuts restored because the cuts had hurt black constituents. Or the demands may be specific, as in wanting money earmarked for certain black institutions or minority businesses.   

In contrast, the 10 Jewish legislators do not articulate group positions. This is understandable because state issues facing Jews are rarely unique to our community and 10 votes won't be heard. Less understandable is the failure of women legislators, who number 57, to vote as a bloc on issues important to them like child care, child support, and domestic violence.      

In the Illinois State Legislature, what has changed is that black legislators as a group are powerful. Partly, this comes from now controlling 16.8% of the seats. It also comes from their group discipline in wielding votes on behalf of their concerns and from being very public about their demands so that they are perceived as formidable. Fifty years has made a difference.

Question is whether the increase in power for black legislators also broke down social barriers with white legislators, as happened historically with other minority groups including Jews? The cocktail receptions, dinners, and bar parties that are the after-hours gatherings in Springfield, are color-blind.  But dig down deeper into the question of who shares apartments and who organizes movie outings, TV viewings, and card games, and groups continue to segregate by race, ethnicity, and often gender.

This is not absolute. There are legislators and lobbyists who easily play in both worlds. For example, there were the weekly poker games attended by State Senator Obama. But in general, after-after hours relaxing of friends is done in the company of the familiar. 

Fifty years ago, my dad and his friends joining in the memorial service on the Boston Commons, wondered if and hoped that "Negroes" would secure political power equal to other Americans. They did.

But what about the type of social integration which leads to trust? The Springfield scene mirrors the rest of the U.S. society. Neighborhoods still divide along racial lines. If my dad and his friends were still alive, I wonder if they think it will ever change?

Race matters

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Unlike President Obama and New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow, I could not have been Trayvon Martin; not now, not 35 years ago.

Nor could I have been his mother. The same is true for the five white women and one Hispanic woman who made up the jury in the George Zimmerman case.

Justice is blind.    

Eighteen years ago, I sat with my co-workers in front of a TV waiting for the OJ Simpson verdict. The room lit up with cheers of joy when non-guilty verdict was read. I was stunned and slunk away, catching shock in the eyes of the one other white person in the room.  First was the verdict; then the high-fives among my co-workers.

That verdict was handed down by a jury of nine blacks, two whites, and one Hispanic.

Justice is blind.

The defense lawyers for George Zimmerman told a story of a black teenage boy in a hooded sweatshirt.  Strange, how frightening that sounds.  This teenager then attacked Mr. Zimmerman who had bruises on his body to show for it. Mr. Zimmerman was justified in defending himself.   

Those speaking on the other side told the story of a black teenage boy walking home when an unknown man began to pursue him. Strange, how frightening that sounds. This teenager then defended himself with his fists. Mr. Martin was an innocent, attacked by a vigilante who had been told by a police dispatcher not to pursue the teenager.

The jury was instructed that they needed to determine guilt without a reasonable doubt. There were no witnesses and the victim was dead and could not tell his story. Based on the jury's understanding of the facts and arguments laid out by the prosecution and defense, they determined that Mr. Zimmerman was not guilty. Justice was properly carried out.

Question is what would have happened had it been a black man who shot a half white, half Hispanic teenage boy, without witnesses, in a neighborhood in Florida or Illinois or Colorado? Would the police have questioned him for 5 hours, accepting his story of self-defense without subjecting him to a medical examination, and then released him without arrest? 

As the mother of a 6 ft. teenage boy who frequently walks home from friends at night in a hooded sweatshirt, I am glad I live in a neighborhood where I don't think gun carrying residents stalk suspicious people.  Though I don't really know that to be true. At the very least, and it makes me sad to write this, I take comfort in the fact that my son doesn't have to be afraid of "walking while black."

Will Illinois be the next state to recognize same-sex marriage?

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On June 26, the U.S Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) in a 5-4 decision.

This means that same gender couples married in states that legally permit same sex marriage will have the access to the federal rights and benefits equal to that of heterosexual married couples.

Illinois is not one of those states.

In 2011, the Illinois Legislature legalized civil unions. Some legislators clearly said that they supported civil unions because it was a way to bestow similar legal and economic benefits to those living together in a civil union as to those living in marriage.  They did not, however, support this as a first step to legalizing same sex marriage. Their perspectives on the sanctimony of marriage as being between a man and a woman, for the most part, have not changed. 

What has changed it is a new understanding of the limitations of the concept of legal civil unions as a way to bestowing similar legal and economic benefits to those living in civil union vs. marriage. These came to the forefront on June 26 because, practically speaking, same sex couples joined in a legal civil union in Illinois will not be able to benefit from the economic benefits of the DOMA decision.

Illinois' supporters of SB 10, The Religious Freedom Protection and Civil Union Act, enthusiastically latched onto the Supreme Court ruling as yet one more powerful reason why Illinois legislators should and would legalize same sex marriage soon. The strong language used to explain the majority opinion of the Supreme Court, words like "human rights" and "dignity," justified rising expectations that the Illinois would join thirteen other states in passing "marriage equality" legislation. 

It was a dramatic turn-about from the tone of rage and disappointment when Representative Greg Harris, the lead sponsor of SB 10, decided not to call the bill for a vote on May 31st. His decision was tactical and one he made very reluctantly. Had Representative Harris called the bill, it would have failed to pass and therefore been dead for the rest of the year. By choosing to get an extension for the bill until the end of August, Harris kept hope alive that the bill might still get the 60 votes needed to get it out of the House; where it would be sent to Governor Quinn, who has already committed to signing it.

Will waiting change the outcome?

Illinois is a "true-blue" state when it comes to voting Democratic. The Democratic majorities in the Illinois House, Illinois Senate, and Governor's Office made sure to gerrymander the voting districts so that the State will continue to vote true-blue for the next decade.

But it is middle-of-the-country, as in middle-of-the-road, when it comes to social views.

In 1972, the Illinois State Legislature began debating the proposed Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Among women activists, every year between 1972 and 1982, was thought to be THE YEAR that the Illinois Legislature would finally ratify the ERA.  It seemed obvious that a state with a sophisticated metropolitan area and a well-organized and vocal women rights movement would be progressive enough to give equal rights to women, in spite of opposition from Phyllis Schlafly. But that didn't happen. In the end, 35 states ratified the amendment, three short of the 38 states needed to add it to the Constitution. Of the twelve Midwestern states, only Missouri and Illinois were hold-outs.

A June 26, 2013 New York Times article commented that Illinois along with Hawaii, New Jersey, Nevada, and Oregon are viewed as the five states most likely to pass legislation supporting same sex marriage.  I wonder.

Almost all legislators who are not supporting SB 10 cite religious beliefs about the sacredness of marriage between one man and one woman.  Some are influenced by the Catholic Conference of Illinois and the Bishops who lobbied hard against SB 10. Members of the African-American clergy spoke in favor of marriage between one man and one woman. The Chicago Rabbinical Council, which is an umbrella voice for the Orthodox, stated that they oppose any effort to change the definition of marriage to include same sex unions."  Other churches made same similar statements as CRC even as their colleagues, just as CRC's colleagues across the Jewish establishment, came to different decisions about marriage equality.

Looking closer at the Senate vote (34 Yes, 21 No, 2 present, and 2 Non-voting) on SB 10 was illuminating. It was not a Republican vs. Democratic vote though almost Republicans voted against the bill. Some Chicago Democrats didn't support it. There was diversity within the African-American and Southern Illinois Caucuses. Some Democratic Senators who are strong voices for poor people and the disenfranchised did not vote "yes," in spite of the civil rights language of the supporters.

Likewise, some House Republican members, contrary to expectation, said they would vote yes.  They cited personal, familial experiences for their vote.

Voting for or against same sex marriage is a vote of conscience. Leadership arm-twisting, constituent pressure, campaign donations, perhaps a primary threat are the usual tactics that change minds. I don't think those tactics trumps one's moral beliefs. 

My guess is that the New York Times is wrong; that Illinois will not be in the first wave or even in the first half of States passing legislation to legalize marriage between two adults of the same sex.   And that is because of legislators voting their conscience on this particular issue.