Risk takers have short political career tracks
It is often said, not quite accurately, that there are old politicians and bold politicians, but never old, bold politicians. That’s because the longer a politician serves in office, the lower the risk-taking quotient.
In reality, there are three distinct political career tracks: risk takers, free shooters and stay putters.
The first category is typified by short-term office holders who are not part of any political dynasty, view their post as a steppingstone to a more powerful and prestigious position, do not want a lifelong political career, and lack patience or political connections. It’s up or out, and risk takers want to move up while they’re still young.
The third category is typified by longtime office holders who have patiently and remorselessly clawed their up the political ladder or whose DNA makes them part of the family business. They are lifers. In an old "Dirty Harry" movie, Clint Eastwood’s character famously said, "A man’s got to know his limitations." Stay putters have spent their entire adult life in the political realm, have no other salable talents, and either psychologically or financially need their sinecure, or, if their family has spent a couple of generations building their power base, aren’t going to jeopardize it. They keep their job so they can pass it on to their offspring.
The second category, composed of the shrewdest, are the free shooters. They aspire to higher office secure in the knowledge that they won’t forfeit their current position if they lose. That neat trick is accomplished by running for another office midway through a 4-year term, by Chicago aldermen elected in odd-numbered years running for county, legislative, congressional or state office in even-numbered years, or countywide or congressional office holders running for Chicago mayor in odd-numbered years.
The Illinois Constitution forbids running for two offices in the same election. The only exception is seeking the Cook County Board presidency while simultaneously running for one of the 17 county commissioner posts in districts, but there is no prohibition on running for an office while occupying a different office.
The most proficient of the free shooters are the members of the "Daley Clan," the royalty of 11th Ward. Richard J. Daley broke into politics in 1936, winning an Illinois House seat from heavily Democratic Bridgeport and then moving quickly to the Illinois Senate. In 1946 Daley took the only risk of his 41-year career. He ran for Cook County sheriff, lost in a Republican year, and forfeited his legislative seat. He became the state revenue director in 1949, and he was elected county clerk in 1950. The lesson learned was: Don’t give up what you’ve got until you’ve already got something better.
In 1955, after having been re-elected clerk in 1954, Daley had a free shot at the Chicago mayoralty. Knowing his limitations and at the pinnacle of power, Daley never entertained notions of being governor or senator — which would have been safe jumps.
The mayor made his son, Richard M. Daley, Bridgeport’s state senator in 1972. The younger Daley learned his safe-jumping lesson well. He ran for state’s attorney in 1980, at the midpoint of his Senate term. He won and ran for mayor in 1983, just beyond midterm as state’s attorney. In 1989, in his third term, he ran for and finally won the mayoralty.
Another shrewd free shooter is county Assessor Joe Berrios who, midway in his term as Board of Review commissioner, ran for assessor in 2010. At the review board Berrios had major input into reducing property tax assessments, and he raised mega-dollars from commercial property owners; when he ran for assessor, winning the Democratic primary with less than 40 percent of the vote, Berrios got contributions from the entire food chain — those who wanted bargains if he was the assessor and those who wanted continued deals if he stayed on the board.
At the opposite end of the spectrum are the risk takers, exemplified by Pat Quinn, who was never afraid to lose and who relished the perpetual campaigning more than he did the dull duties of governing. Quinn is a headline maker and a master of the sound bite. After being elected to the old Board of Tax Appeals in 1982, where he could have raised gobs of money and become a lifer, Quinn bailed out in 1986, seeking the state treasurer’s nomination and losing, then winning the job in 1990, running for secretary of state in 1994 and losing, losing nominations for U.S. senator in 1996 and lieutenant governor in 1998, winning the lieutenant governor post in 2002 and 2006, and then ascending to be governor on Rod Blagojevich’s impeachment. With Quinn, it’s always been up or out, and now he’s at the top.
Another coveted job is U.S. representative, especially if there is a free shot or, better yet, a special election. That means being a Chicago alderman, a state senator or a county commissioner at midterm. Five of Illinois’ 11 Chicago-area congressmen got to Washington via a free shot. Among the Democrats, Bobby Rush, then a Chicago alderman, won Harold Washington’s old South Side 1st District seat in 1992, Danny Davis, then a county commissioner, won the West Side 7th District in 1996, Luis Gutierrez, a Harold Washington-backing Chicago alderman, won a newly created Hispanic-majority seat in 1992, and Mike Quigley, then a county commissioner, won Rahm Emanuel’s vacated House seat in 2009 after Emanuel quit to be Barack Obama’s White House chief of staff.
Republican Peter Roskam of DuPage County, after losing a 1998 congressional primary to Judy Biggert while he was a state representative, grabbed an Illinois Senate seat and then won for congress at midterm in 2006, narrowly beating Tammy Duckworth.
Here’s an analysis:
Risk takers: Both of Illinois’ U.S. senators, Democrat Dick Durbin and Republican Mark Kirk, were congressmen. Both were entrenched in their district. Both could have been lifers. Durbin took an "up-and-out" risk in 1996, winning Paul Simon’s open Senate seat, and Kirk took a similar risk in 2010, seeking Obama’s Senate seat. Both risked oblivion, and both won.
In 1992 Carol Moseley Braun took a huge risk. Then the Cook County recorder of deeds, she ran for U.S. senator in the Democratic primary against incumbent Al Dixon and big-bucks trial lawyer Al Hofeld. In the "Year of the Woman," she won with 38.3 percent of the vote. Had she lost, she would have forfeited her county job.
In 1998 Republican state Senator Peter Fitzgerald of Palatine sought the nomination to run against Braun. Fitzgerald was in midterm, and he faced Comptroller Loleta Didrickson in the primary, getting 51.8 percent of the vote and winning by 26,310 votes. Didrickson, who had been elected in 1994, lost her job.
Other risk takers were the disgraced Blagojevich, who risked his congressional seat in 2002 to run for governor, and the equally disgraced George Ryan, who as lieutenant governor in 1990 switched to a run for secretary of state as a prelude to a 1998 bid for governor. Dan Hynes, of the 19th Ward Hynes dynasty, got himself anointed as the Democrats’ 1998 candidate for comptroller and ran against Quinn in 2010, losing by just 8,372 votes.
Another risk taker was Dick Phelan, who was elected Cook County Board president in a 1990 upset and who ran for governor in 1994 and lost the primary. The biggest risk-taking confrontation was in 1990, when Republican Secretary of State Jim Edgar faced Democratic Attorney General Neil Hartigan for governor, with Edgar winning by 83,909 votes. At the governorship level, "risk" is obligatory; politicians run when the job is open.
Another risk taker was Alexi Giannoulias, who was elected state treasurer in 2006. Rather than entrench himself, Giannoulias ran for senator in 2010, losing to Kirk. Another was Lisa Madigan, who was elected state senator in 1998 and who won the attorney general post by 114,948 votes in 2002. However, Madigan passed on bids for governor in 2010 and 2014. In 1972 Roman Pucinski risked his congressional seat for a failed Senate bid.
The free shooters are epidemic. Obama, who was elected state senator in 1996, ran against Rush in midterm in 2000 and lost. In 2004 he ran for the Senate nomination, again in midterm, and won.
Jesse White, who was elected to Braun’s job as recorder in 1992, was another free shooter. In 1998, at midterm, he won the Democratic primary for his current job. Other free shooters include Republican Dick Ogilvie, who was elected in 1966 as the Cook County Board president and who ran for governor and won in 1968, Toni Preckwinkle, the 5th Ward alderman who crushed Todd Stroger in the 2010 county board primary, and P.J. Cullerton, the 38th Ward alderman who was elected assessor in 1958.
The bottom line: Free shooting is the best means to the end.
Send e-mail to russ@russstewart. com or visit his Web site at www. russstewart.com.