YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

The Nation

GOP Is Losing Its Grip on Illinois Governor's Mansion

Era of power-sharing in jeopardy as Democrat leads contest for state's top spot. Republican candidate suffers from name confusion.

October 20, 2002|Eric Slater | Times Staff Writer

CHICAGO — For more than a quarter century, conservative residents of rural and suburban Illinois have helped check the influence of the nation's most famously Democratic city with a brilliantly simple, if not necessarily easy, maneuver: they have elected a Republican governor every four years.

Since 1976, Illinois has had a de facto system of checks and balances, with conservatives holding the governor's mansion and liberals in charge in the nation's third largest city. The era of power-sharing, however, may be coming to a close.

With less just over two weeks to go before election day, the Republican candidate for governor, state Atty. Gen. Jim Ryan, is low on cash, short on endorsements and down by double-digits in most polls to Democratic challenger Rod Blagojevich.

One of the 56-year-old Ryan's most intractable problems has been explaining to voters that he isn't already governor. That's George Ryan -- no relation and no friend -- who is bowing out after one scandal-plagued term.

Blagojevich, meanwhile, a 45-year-old congressman from Chicago who has an energy and look that elicits comparisons to John F. Kennedy, has spent much of the campaign making friends with the conservatives from "downstate" who Ryan expected to be his supporters. And he's had remarkable success in offering lessons on Serbian name pronunciation. "How do you say his name?" his Web page asks. "Bla-GOYA-vich," it instructs, the "GOYA" pulsing for emphasis.

"Each party in Illinois has long had a sort of veto somewhere," said Jim Nowlan, a former state legislator and longtime Republican strategist.

When Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley wanted to renovate Soldier Field in the mid-1990s, then Gov. Jim Edgar refused to go along, and the plan died.

When Daley first pushed for expansion of O'Hare International Airport, which sits just inside the city limits, current Gov. Ryan supported the building of a new airport well south of the city. The result: a moderated O'Hare expansion plan that has plenty of critics but which most analysts agree will benefit the city and the state.

The two also negotiated an agreement to rebuild Soldier Field, a project now underway.

"I think Republicans are going to lose their veto," Nowlan said. "Jim Ryan has just not gotten any traction on any issue and the party faithful are terribly demoralized."

The last Democratic governor of Illinois took office when Richard Nixon was president. Dan Walker earned the job in 1972 despite the fact that he didn't have the backing of the Chicago party machine. He lasted one rocky term.

People remember him as something of a pro-union politician. Other than that, most don't recall much about the state's political climate a quarter century ago.

They know, however, that the state and the city of Chicago have done pretty well when the governor has had to negotiate with the Windy City mayor on issues that affect both, and vice versa. And they wonder what will happen if a Democrat wins the state's top job, especially since the party, which already controls the state House, may be able to take the state Senate as well, giving them full control of Springfield.

They also wonder how Jim Ryan, an old hand at the political game, fell so far behind an ambitious young congressman with little name recognition.

In a sense, Ryan's problems began long before the campaign.

Current Gov. Ryan was secretary of state, which oversees the Motor Vehicles Division, before he was elected governor in 1998. After he took the statehouse it was revealed that some of his underlings at the secretary of state's office had exchanged commercial driver's licenses for bribes, and that some of the ill-gotten funds had made their way into his gubernatorial campaign coffers.

The so-called licenses-for-bribes scandal has dragged on throughout George Ryan's administration.

Fifty people have been convicted thus far, though the governor himself has not been implicated.

Ryan's administration has been marked by another notable controversy: his decision to place a moratorium on executions following revelations that since the death penalty was reinstated in Illinois in 1977, the state has executed 12 people and freed 13 who had been wrongfully convicted.

The moratorium has infuriated many in his own party -- and further colored the name Ryan among conservatives.

"Not very many voters can distinguish the fact that these are different Ryans," said Kenneth Janda, a political professor emeritus at Northwestern University. "Jim Ryan has really been hurt by the governor and the scandal that has surrounded his administration."

Jim Ryan's own history has haunted him as well, however.

As attorney general when the licenses-for-bribes scandal broke, he declined to launch an investigation. The FBI has handled the case.

And it was Jim Ryan who carried out the most infamous of the wrongful death-penalty prosecutions.

Los Angeles Times Articles