The state of Illinois may never again see, and probably never before saw, the blend of pragmatism, vision and political skill that combined to make James R. “Big Jim” Thompson the state’s longest-serving governor.
The Chicago suburbs were barely emerging as a political and social force when Thompson was first elected in 1976, but it is not too extreme a stretch to note that they may not have reached today’s prominence without his influence.
One of the Chicago Republican’s most conspicuous accomplishment in that context was, of course, his work to keep what was then the nation’s top retailer, Sears, from leaving the state in 1989, and helping to facilitate the company’s historic move to Hoffman Estates.
The development not only transformed Hoffman Estates, it also cemented a practice of luring and appeasing businesses with tax incentives and government initiatives that individual suburbs would use for decades to help them thrive.
Notably, the Sears deal came as Thompson’s career as Illinois governor was winding down. Three years later, he would leave politics and settle into lucrative private legal practice. But Thompson, who died Friday night at age 84, would leave a legacy of successful deal making that could arguably mark him as the last Illinois governor who really knew how to get things done in Illinois politics.
Succeeding the unremarkable populist Dan Walker, Thompson had a vision for the state that was well-suited to the time. He made the kind of deals that brought a Japanese automaker and thousands of jobs to the state during a period when the loss of manufacturing jobs to Japan was a major national crisis; that helped transform a rundown Navy Pier into an entertainment mecca and the state’s top tourist destination; that built a $172 million government center in the heart of the Chicago Loop; and that kept the White Sox in Chicago.
In hindsight, some of these accomplishments are open to question in the context of a world that has changed much in 30 years. But there is no denying our state would be different without them and would likely not have developed as well as it did.
Thompson would be followed by a competent successor in Republican Jim Edgar, but even Edgar’s steady leadership seemed better suited to keeping the machinery of government running rather than fashioning a transformative vision. And Edgar was followed by a succession of chief executives who, at best, struggled to find ways to produce a prosperous economy or instill well-functioning government and, at worst, devolved into rank opportunism and corruption.
The challenges facing Illinois in 2020 differ from those Thompson faced long ago. Still, it is difficult to imagine a government with him at the helm in which the speaker of the House or any other elected official would be considered the most influential person in state government. With Thompson’s passing, that’s a notion worthy of reflection.
Confronting an atmosphere of economic hardship, dysfunctional legislative operations and an unavoidable health crisis, Gov. J.B. Pritzker has shown some promise as a leader in the early years of his tenure, but he is far from proven.
It is hard to predict whether he or whoever may succeed him can soon find a strategy to repair Illinois government and put the state back on a path to security and prosperity.
Arlington Heights Daily Herald