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

Why is Jeff retiring from Springfield?

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And why are Senators Maloney and Garrett as well as Representatives May, Lyons, and Dugan retiring from public life?  “They are dropping like flies,” groaned one lobbyist.  

There are politicians who announce they are retiring only to run for another public office. They are not retiring from political life, though they may frame their goodbye announcement that way.  They are trying to move up in life. That is to be expected.

There are politicians who announce they are retiring only to return as a lobbyist.  State legislators in Illinois are paid $67, 836 per year. This is above the average earnings per job in Illinois but not enough to raise a family with middle-class aspirations of college and home ownership.  Some politicians retire so they can return as lobbyists to increase their income. That is to be expected.

Some politicians leave public office because of age or poor health. The legislative session schedule is physically tough. Travel and time away from home as well as hours of listening to people talk and countless receptions can be draining. That is to be expected.

But what was not expected was the 2012 exodus of experienced, talented, well-liked officials. While it is possible that these six politicians will return to the capital or to a higher political office, none of them have given the slightest indication that they will do so. They seem to be easing out of political life entirely, as they step down from local political roles as well.

Each legislator gave a perfectly good reason for his or her decision.  One reflected that after surviving a health crisis, he took stock of the impact of weekends and evenings spent attending one community event after another, on his family life and chose family.  Another wants the freedom to fight for bills that are most important to her. A third responded that while he voted for the tax increase bill in January because it was the right thing to do, he didn’t want to be raked over the coals publicly by constituents.

Senator Schoenberg talked about wanting to help children and families in a different way. He will be expanding on his role with JB Pritzker, helping a significant family foundation make important decisions about contributions to innovative projects across the world. Jeff quoted one of his aldermen who said, upon hearing the news, “Let’s see. You can work for a bankrupt state or work for a billionaire seeking to do well with his wealth. Is there a choice?”

All good reasons but not good enough.  There is something else going on.

Legislators come to Springfield to help their constituents, their communities. Then reality sets in. Every senator and representative has a story to tell about a favorite bill stopped dead by process.  The story starts with jumping into the policy weeds, moves to meeting endlessly with supporters and opponents and carefully drafting and redrafting the bill. The story always ends with the bill being stuck in the Rules Committee because the Speaker did not want to release it. Sometimes, the legislator can beg and trade to get it moved, but only sometimes.

Legislators are also tired about the struggle to be re-elected. Being an astute policy thinker or a commanding champion of legislation is not a predictor of job security. Politicians must be voracious fundraisers, which usually includes relationships with less than admirable people. They must be energetic campaigners, eager to go door-to-door and charismatic at persuading volunteers to join them in walking the streets.  The 2012 election will be tough for those who re-drawn into new districts. 

But that doesn’t explain the entire exodus at this point. What else is going on?

In flush economic times, every politician gets gushed over by constituents, grateful for the legislator who helped to get state funding for a neighborhood school or for a much needed program. But there is not much money flying loose these days.  Instead, what is flying is tremendous anger at almost all politicians in office more than a year. 

And nothing on the horizon promises good times are coming back soon.  The golden years of the 1990s when state revenues increased every year, without tax increase are just a memory. Then, the budget was balanced… at least on paper.  During those years, in the final days of Session, trade-offs in back rooms produced goodies for every interest group; the poor single mother and the business man; infants and seniors; universities and day care centers. Everyone got something.

Now, most interest groups get pink slips.

There are legislators and wanna-be legislators who are young enough and idealistic enough to take the long view, knowing the world will turn. Illinois has thriving corporations, a well-educated workforce, a world class city with a comprehensive transportation system, and diverse natural and economic resources. These stormy days won’t last forever.

But perhaps for Jeff and others like him who are dedicated to doing good in Springfield, waiting another eight years  for opportunities to bubble up again seems like a long time. 

I asked Jeff when he sleeps because he is constantly being called into meetings, both in district and in Springfield.  He is an expert in all sorts of fiscal issues which require background reading that, my guess is, happens after midnight. His answer: “from sunset on Friday to sunset on Saturday.”

With his retirement from the Illinois State Legislature, perhaps Jeff’s sleep schedule will become more normal and his family will see him regularly.  This is good for Jeff and his family. After 22 years in public life, he and his family deserve peace and quiet.

We are happy for the Schoenberg family. But without Jeff’s wisdom, institutional knowledge, commitment to constituents and community, and belief that being a public servant is a noble undertaking, Springfield will be harder place for the rest of us to carry out our mission for the Jewish community.

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