Democrats won't win blue ribbon for unity

By Rick Pearson and Stefanie Bolzen, Tribune staff reporters. Tribune staff reporter Ray Long contributed to this report

August 14, 2003

SPRINGFIELD -- On a day honoring their party, Democrats celebrated in what has become typical fashion: They sniped at one another.

Although Democrats took virtual control of state government this year after nearly three decades of Republican governors, party leaders have never warmed up to one another, and that was clearly evident during Governor's Day festivities Wednesday at the Illinois State Fair.

House Speaker Michael Madigan, the Southwest Sider who chairs the state party, used the occasion to ally himself with Democratic Secretary of State Jesse White against Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich in what has become a personally bitter dispute over cuts the governor made to White's budget.

Meanwhile, Blagojevich spent part of the day lecturing fellow Democrats not to get too greedy with demands for state jobs and contracts.

Even so, there was still more unity on display than when the Democrats had their day last year, when then-candidate Blagojevich attacked Madigan for "arrogance" in showering state grant money on a college pal's private livestock show. Madigan shot back with an accusation that Blagojevich had committed "indiscretions," a charge that the House speaker refused to elaborate on but which dogged Blagojevich for months.

Despite that backbiting, Democrats still managed to take advantage of a scandal-weakened Republican Party to sweep all but one statewide elected office and take full control of the legislature in the November elections.

"Democrats are always a dysfunctional family," state Sen. Denny Jacobs (D-East Moline) said Wednesday at the fair.

Mindful of that tendency, there were myriad calls for unity among party members who gathered at the fair, and they blamed the factionalism on tensions arising from the state's fiscal crisis inherited from Republicans.

Blagojevich tried to smooth relations with State Sen. Miguel del Valle (D-Chicago), a leader of the legislature's Hispanic caucus who has complained that the governor has slighted the Latino community.

Blagojevich had allowed some del Valle-sponsored bills to become law without the governor's signature in what was widely interpreted as a slap at the senator's complaints.

The governor said he spoke to del Valle Wednesday and explained that his staff had made a mistake and that "there was absolutely no intention to do something ridiculously mean and petty."

Del Valle did not join other Democrats in Springfield Wednesday.

White, however, was on hand and continued to complain about Blagojevich's decision last month to trim the secretary's budget by $48.7 million.

"When the people realize the impact of those cuts, when facilities within their counties and within their communities are closed down, jobs will be lost. I think the realization will come home to them," White said.

White's push for lawmakers to restore some of the cuts gained a significant ally with Madigan, who controls the Illinois House. "I think the constitutional officers should have their budget the way they want it," Madigan said.

The squabbling overshadowed the first effort by a host of announced or potential Democratic candidates for next year's nomination for the U.S. Senate to break out of the pack.

Several of the contenders bused in supporters for a rally, and sign-waving and T-shirt wearing groups of backers tried to out-shout the competition with their candidate's name.

But in what was largely a group bashing of President Bush, state Comptroller Daniel Hynes was the lone Senate candidate to take on one of his primary challengers, multimillionaire broker Blair Hull.

"Our democracy is not for sale," Hynes said, noting Hull's promise to spend up to $40 million of his own money in the race. "We need a candidate who is proven. It's not enough to have hope. It's not enough to say that I'm going to spend $40 million and run fancy TV commercials."

Hull didn't take the bait but instead stressed that he was not a "professional politician."

Officials of the Democratic State Central Committee, the party's leadership structure, said they were exploring a series of statewide public candidate forums. But no formal endorsement by the party organization is planned at this point, they said.

Since Blagojevich took office in January, some Democratic county chairmen have complained that he has been lax in finding state jobs for loyal Democrats and sharing other spoils of victory. The governor took time Wednesday to tell them to back off. "Change doesn't come by making everybody happy," he said, adding that the first responsibility of Democrats "must always be ... to the public and then to the party."

"You can't simply say that ending business as usual means that Republicans are out and the Democrats are in and that we're going to do the same old thing with different names and faces," Blagojevich said. "That is not what I mean when I say `change.'"

Copyright © 2003, Chicago Tribune

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