As corruption scandals worm through the establishment Democratic Party, Gov. J.B. Pritzker finds himself with new and unexpected leverage. He can push for meaningful ethics reform in Illinois government by removing the barricades his own party’s leaders erected in the past. Those Democrats are wounded. He is not.
So will he lead on real reform?
“Restoring the public’s trust is of paramount importance,” Pritzker said during last week’s State of the State address while his two chamber leaders — House Speaker Michael Madigan and Senate President Don Harmon — stood at the dais behind him. “Let’s not let the well-connected and well-protected work the system while the interests of ordinary citizens are forgotten. There is too much that needs to be accomplished to lift up all the people of Illinois.”
That effort starts with drawing a fair map of legislative districts after this year’s federal census. It could happen through constitutional change.
Pritzker said as a candidate for governor he supported amending the Illinois Constitution to take the process out of the hands of lawmakers: “We should amend the constitution to create an independent commission to draw legislative maps." More recently, he said he would not sign into law an unfair map.
But that’s not as strong a position as his call for an amendment. It gives him wiggle room to backtrack. Who defines “unfair"? Party leaders who insisted the last map was fair? If Pritzker is serious about confronting “a scourge that has been plaguing our political system for far too long,” as he said in his speech, he needs to lead the way on establishing an independent process to draw districts. Allowing legislators to keep manipulating their own boundary lines may be legal, but it’s conflicted and corrupt.
Here’s a recap of what happened 10 years ago:
Following the release of U.S. Census Bureau numbers, Speaker Madigan and then-Senate President John Cullerton began the process of drawing new boundaries for 118 House districts, which would fold into 59 Senate districts. They also redrew the boundaries of federal congressional districts.
Madigan set up a secret Springfield office with highly restricted access. To draw a map friendly to Democrats, his mapmakers drew legislative districts that included incumbents’ homes and offices, their churches, their schools, their social circles — anywhere they could count on loyal support. Then they carved up Republican-leaning areas to dilute their potency.
They even sliced out potential political opponents. In one congressional race, they protected U.S. Rep. Dan Lipinski, D-Western Springs, by drawing a potential primary election opponent into a different district so he couldn’t challenge the incumbent.
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The mapmakers used a highly technical, computer-driven process to ensure their control over the legislature. Lawmakers were allowed into the map room on a one-by-one basis and were warned not to discuss it publicly. Gov. Pat Quinn signed that gerrymandered map into law.
It worked to Democrats’ advantage. In both the House and Senate they eventually gained supermajorities. How’s that working out, Illinois?
Voters revolted and tried to get remap reform on the ballot by collecting more than 500,000 signatures. But Madigan’s top attorney filed a lawsuit and blocked the push for a constitutional amendment.
We hope Gov. Pritzker grasps the ultimate slap to Illinois citizens that disqualification process entailed. We hope the governor understands the corruption the current process breeds. No map can be truly fair when it’s so wholly driven by partisan politics.
Former state Rep. Peter Breen, R-Lombard, is part of a coalition reviving a citizen-driven petition process. It’s an uphill battle. But he says the group learned from the Illinois Supreme Court’s ruling last time and is fashioning a clean, straightforward amendment that would force bipartisan cooperation on map-drawing.
His group could use a reform-minded, ethics-driven governor to elevate the charge. It would be a chance for Pritzker not only to deliver for Illinois citizens, and keep his campaign promise, but also to build a lasting legacy on true ethics reform. His opportunity grows with each indictment of another lawmaker.
Step up, Governor. The time is now.
Chicago Tribune, Monday