A truly startling, topsy-turvy race is being run for governor of Illinois. U.S. Representative Glenn Poshard, the Democrat, is embracing more conservative positions on culture and social policy; Illinois Secretary of State George Ryan, the Republican, is running away with much of the Democratic base, including gay-rights supporters. On trade, Poshard has supported a Buchananite economic nationalism and opposed “Glean Air” Act amendments which would deprive coal-mining Southern Illinoisans of jobs; Ryan endorses the free-trade model of global economic citizenship espoused by most big corporations.
As we go to press, Ryan leads Poshard statewide by 49 percent to 35 percent, with 15 percent undecided—but much depends on turnout and other uncontrollable factors. No matter how the election turns out, however, the race itself will have important repercussions. For years, the Democratic Party of Illinois has been a weather vane of Democratic Party philosophy in the nation. After the 1948 election when the country determined it wanted Harry Truman’s Fair Deal, Illinois sent to the Senate ex-socialist economist Paul Douglas, to whom Truman turned to structure an early prototype of Medicare. As the nation sought a less activist liberalism, Illinois elected Alan Dixon. Most recently, it has sent to Washington Carol Moseley- Braun, who is the embodiment of soccer moms concerned about protecting abortion rights, and Dick Durbin, who ran on a pro-choice, pro-gun-control platform.
Now, as the nation seemingly turns back to conservatism, Moseley-Braun is in serious trouble, and state Democrats have nominated for governor a pro-life, pro-gun conservative. Poshard, a 52-year-old Marion professor of education who coached football, basketball, and track, came up the hard way in downstate Illinois: His parents were so hard up that at one time the family lived in a refurbished chicken coop. Moving to teaching assignments downstate, he found warm support for his coaching and down-home conviviality, support which led him to the state senate and to Congress, where he did the unthinkable: He was the first incumbent to embrace a voluntary term limit often years. An eloquent speaker of the William Jennings Bryan school of populism, he strongly supported pro-life legislation, the rights of gun owners, and economic nationalism. His address to the House opposing partial-birth abortion was exceeded in passion only by that of Henry Hyde.
With this record, his bid for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination was initially downgraded by most analysts. But Illinois Democrats were tired of nominating gubernatorial candidates who support high taxes and spout stringent pro-abortion and gay-rights rhetoric. His opponents—a Clinton Justice Department aide, a Clinton ex-district attorney, and an African-American former state attorney general —split the liberal vote, while Poshard gained support from regular party stalwarts tired of fervent liberaldom: Congressman Bill Lipinski, a pro-lifer from the southwest side of Chicago; state House Speaker Mike Madigan; Alderman Edward Burke; John Daley, influential brother of Chicago Mayor Richard Daley; and Tom Hynes, powerful former Cook County assessor. In the March 17 primary, Poshard won the nomination with 38.5 percent of the vote, with 62 percent of his vote coming from downstate (the area of Illinois outside of Cook County and the collar counties of DuPage, Kane, Lake, McHenry, and Will). Of the 611,000 votes cast in liberal Cook County—home of Chicago—Poshard totaled just 18.8 percent.
Poshard’s opponent, George Ryan, is a 64-year-old veteran of Illinois politics: former speaker of the Illinois house, lieutenant governor, and current holder of what is certainly the best job in the state for building a political machine, secretary of state—a post that puts the incumbent’s name on drivers’ licenses, billboards, and branch offices. In addition. the canny Ryan convinced the General Assembly to pass legislation which provided state funds for organ donations, funds which could be utilized for TV commercials encouraging widespread participation. The result: Ryan appeared almost daily with babies and grateful recipients.
Earlier in his career, Ryan was anything but a liberal. A downstate pharmacist, he collected supremely conservative credentials as a leading legislative pro-lifer. As speaker, he blocked the passage of the ERA in the 1970’s, so angering feminists that they poured buckets of calves’ blood on the floor of the rotunda of the state capitol. Bodyguards were appointed to protect Ryan, while his phone lines crackled with invective from screaming liberal women vowing all kinds of physical damage to him.
But something happened to Ryan following his ascension to the secretary of state’s post, as he prepared to run for governor. Although he had once written a letter of praise to the NRA, citing the example of Tiananmen Square where government suppression of guns throttled dissent, he became one of the first “conservative” Republicans to endorse the Brady Bill. He still supports restrictions on abortion, but with exceptions for rape, incest, and the health of the mother. He even fought to tie himself to pro-choicers on the state ticket, alienating some of his base. Rather than run with a pro-life lieutenant governor, he recruited a pro-choice, one-term female state house member from wealthy suburban country-club Lake Forest. Even worse, in the primary campaign for United States senator, he endorsed and campaigned fervently for the pro-choice state comptroller over Peter Fitzgerald, a young, bright, socially conservative state senator. Despite Ryan’s opposition, Fitzgerald received the nomination and now seems destined to defeat Moseley- Braun.
The most important question for social conservatives in the general election, however, may be the issue of homosexuality. Since 1974, homosexual rights forces have sought to win passage for a “Human Rights” statute, which would prevent employers and rental property owners from exercising their discretion in hiring or renting. The bill declares that a person’s right to hold a job should depend on performance and qualifications, not “employer bias,” meaning personal abhorrence of what biblical patriarchs and Christian leaders have called perversity. (There would be exemptions, however, for religious organizations and apartment buildings of fewer than four units.)
On this issue, both candidates have been evasive, but Poshard has been more outspoken in his opposition. He begins by stating unequivocally that he will not sign such legislation but then adds that it depends, of course, on what form the legislation takes. One thing is certain: Gay-rights advocates do not like him but endorse—some even enthusiastically—George Ryan. A staff member at the secretary of state’s office wrote—on state time—a strategy paper for the Ryan campaign on winning the homosexual vote, and unwisely sent it out on a state fax machine. When this was made public, Ryan reimbursed the taxpayers. But what is his firm position on the homosexual rights statute?
He’s either for it or is deliberately ambiguous, in the eyes of many social conservatives. They cite heated attacks on Poshard by homosexual rights spokesmen, who in fact walked out of a meeting with Poshard. Their withering blasts at the Democratic candidate and Ryan’s ambiguous stand have led some prominent social conservatives to reconsider their support for Ryan. Further complicating matters, a national organization called Project VoteSmart asked both candidates how they would stand on the issue. Poshard didn’t answer; Ryan’s office responded that he would support the gay-rights statute.
But does he really? Some Ryan supporters say that the questionnaire was filled out by a campaign aide. Ryan himself won’t retract the questionnaire, but he does say that his support for such a bill will depend on what it says. His message to social conservatives is mixed: How dare you criticize me after all I’ve done for you; and let me make the bargains I must in order to get elected, and you will be satisfied with the results from a Governor Ryan.
Now Henry Hyde comes into the picture. The venerable, silver-maned congressman and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee worries that a Democratic governor could skew redistricting in the year 2000. Illinois will lose one U.S. House seat that year, and Hyde fears a Democratic-tinged redrawing of the map may put him in competition with Representative Phil Crane. The 74-year-old Hyde, the main congressional spokesman against term limits, is not contemplating retirement. As the leading social conservative in Illinois, he has urged his friends to support his good friend Ryan.
There is another (seldom reported) aspect to social conservatives’ threat to bolt Ryan. Some are willing to campaign for Poshard not because Poshard is all that good on homosexuality (he recently supported some homosexual rights legislation in Congress) but to rebuke Ryan and the state GOP organization. The Illinois GOP has long benefited from conservative support, but under the governorships of fervent pro-choicers James Thompson and Jim Edgar, conservatives have been given very little. The most prominent party leader has long been Harold Byron Smith, Jr., the current state chairman and a former national committeeman and finance chairman. Despite being scion of a billionaire bluechip banking and manufacturing company. Smith, conservatives say, is eager to dispense governmental balm to ease the slightest liberal itch of politically correct groups. According to one conservative state senator. Smith has declared that a tenth of the party’s electorate is homosexual and that Republican policies should reflect this “fact.”
As we go to press, all odds-makers say Ryan will win handily unless a scandal arises in the secretary of state’s huge domain—certainly not an impossibility, considering an earlier scandal in which truckers’ licenses were awarded in exchange for bribes. Six children were killed in an accident involving a truck driven by an immigrant with little knowledge of English, who purportedly could not pass his driver’s test but obtained a license through bribery. A state probe called by Ryan found no other instances of bribery, but a subsequent FBI probe did, embarrassing Ryan. Still, there has been no political fallout for the secretary of state. Any further disclosures, however, would seriously harm his campaign.
If Ryan wins, it will be because the dynamics of politics have changed, due to his ability to build a whopping majority among Democratic constituencies. Ryan is endorsed by key unions (including the powerful Illinois Education Association) and by gun-control advocates (including Jim Brady, who had supported Dick Durbin for the U.S. Senate and whose followers identify with Democratic Senator Moseley-Braim). Homosexual rights advocates and their allies on prestigious newspaper editorial boards identify with Ryan, and Ryan has more than 3,000 patronage workers. In addition, African-Americans who listen to the two Jesse Jacksons may snub Poshard because of his conservative social policies and his failure to support a pet project of the minister and his politician son.
Throughout the campaign, Ryan has received the money and endorsements but Poshard has stood alone, as social conservatives fancy themselves to do, seemingly a figure of integrity who will not bend—the distinction conservatives have had in Illinois for decades. If Poshard heroically overcomes the odds and wins the election, his stature as a conservative Democrat will take on national proportions.
But one thing is clear: Politics in Illinois have changed. No matter how the election turns out, political analysts can no longer take for granted the “fact” that Republican candidates are distrusted by unions and are disdained by advocates of homosexual rights, by blacks, and by feminists. Nor is it safe to say that Democratic candidates cannot be endorsed by right-to-lifers, homeschoolers, and evangelical opponents to the gay agenda. For the foreseeable future, social conservatism in Illinois has become enthusiastically bipartisan.