Chicago News Cooperative
Advice From a Winning Republican Governor
By DIRK JOHNSON
Published: May 28, 2010
While this state has elected governors who did not eventually face indictment or go to prison, most college students were not yet born, or are too young to remember.
As political science students at the University of Illinois-Chicago took notes, the former governor Jim Edgar delivered some good news: political corruption is not as bad is it used to be. But he also had bad news: the state is headed down the tubes.
“Hopefully none of you is owed any money by the State of Illinois,” said Mr. Edgar, who led Illinois in the 1990s, “because you might not ever get it.”
There would be no sugar coating: “At some point, universities are going to close their doors,” he said. “Highways are going to fall apart. This is not academic.”
Now a distinguished fellow at the University of Illinois Institute of Government and Public Affairs, Mr. Edgar, 63, is seemingly a voice of a Republicanism from another era, touting the virtues of bipartisanship and middle-of-the-road solutions.
He has lately ruffled some feathers in his party by breaking with Bill Brady, the Republican nominee for governor, and calling for an income tax increase favored by Governor Patrick J. Quinn, the Democratic incumbent, to help close a budget deficit of $13 billion in the coming year.
Mr. Edgar cringes at Tea Party bombast and “Obama-is-a-socialist” denunciations. He does not listen to Rush Limbaugh. “People listen to this stuff over and over, and they think it’s all true,” he said. “And they get very angry.”
For his moderate views, Mr. Edgar draws plenty of scorn from the right wing of his party. He supports abortion rights and is an advocate of helping illegal immigrants gain legal status. Jim Leahy, who writes for the conservative Chicago Daily Observer, recently implored: “Please go away Mr. Edgar.”
But if the Republicans are going to capture the governor’s office, some political experts say, they might be smart to ask Mr. Edgar for advice. In contrast to recent state Republican candidates, Mr. Edgar appealed to moderates in Chicago and the suburbs and won plenty of their votes.
When he became governor in 1991, Mr. Edgar inherited a budget deficit of about $2 billion. He raised taxes, cut spending and ultimately left the state with a surplus. In primaries in 1990 and 1994, Mr. Edgar faced challenges from conservatives. When he left office in 1999, he enjoyed approval ratings of some 60 percent. Since his retirement from politics, national party officials have urged him to run for office, especially the United States Senate, on more than one occasion.
For those Republicans who insist on running hard to the right in Illinois, Mr. Edgar suggests they do the math: Without making significant inroads in the Chicago region, where perhaps 70 percent of the votes in the state will be cast, it is difficult to imagine a Republican winning statewide.
Paul M. Green, a political analyst at Roosevelt University, notes that Mr. Edgar is one of the moderates who have been derided by some conservatives as “Rinos” — Republicans in name only. Mr. Green has his own moniker for the critics. “I call them “Raws” — Republicans against winning,” he said. “They can call Jim Edgar whatever they want. But he also has to be called a winner.”
Illinois Republicans hold no statewide offices. Democratic winning margins in Chicago have grown larger as the Republican Party has grown more conservative. In the suburbs, meanwhile, Republicans have lost Congressional offices in traditional strongholds, like DuPage County, where Melissa Bean triumphed. Republicans even lost the far west suburban district long represented by J. Dennis Hastert, the former Speaker of the House, to a Democrat, Bill Foster.
Over a breakfast of croissants and tea at the Peninsula Hotel before addressing the students, Mr. Edgar lamented the party’s drift to the right. “Most people are somewhere in the center on things,” he said. “That’s where the votes are.”
He offered tepid support for Mr. Brady in the governor’s race. “I’ll vote for Brady,” he said, “unless something happens.”
He gave Mr. Quinn points for trying to do the right thing on taxes. “I used to think he was a phony,” Mr. Edgar said. “I don’t think so anymore. I think he’s sincere. I just don’t agree with him on everything.”
In the primary, Mr. Edgar supported State Senator Kirk Dillard, Republican of Hinsdale, his former chief of staff. He said he would not be active in the governor’s race, in part because his university job calls for him to maintain some distance from politics.
He said he does intend to make campaign stops for Mark Kirk, the Republican Senate candidate. He said he was obligated to the candidate, “Because I was the one who talked him into running.” He lauded Mr. Kirk as the sort of Republican moderate who could win in Illinois by drawing Democratic votes.
Mr. Edgar’s own willingness to cross party lines and get along with Democrats goes back to his early childhood in his hometown of Charleston. Mr. Edgar said he became involved in politics as a 6-year-old in 1952 during a mock election at school. In the contest between Adlai Stevenson, a Democrat, and Dwight Eisenhower, a Republican, he said he chose Eisenhower, the war hero. When he went home to tell his parents about his choice, he said there were some raised eyebrows. They were Democrats.
“From that day on,” he said, “I was known in the family as ‘The Republican.’ ”
A version of this article appeared in print on May 30, 2010, on page A21B of the National edition.