Thursday, May 28, 2009

A Republican Who Used Power With Integrity: They Used to Exist

Review of “Power House” by Taylor Pensoneau
W. Russell Arrington was a long standing legislative leader whose strong personality, institutional knowledge, and political senses made him a dominant figure in Illinois legislative operations. Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan described him as the “Father of the Modern General Assembly” for guiding changes that updated the Illinois legislature. Arrington was a suburban Republican leader who realized how to work with a Democratic Mayor of Chicago to find mutual goals and accomplishments. This book is a biography of W. Russell Arrington.

Arrington was born in 1906, the son of an advisor to President McKinley. Russell followed a family interest in politics by becoming active in the Young Republicans. As President of the Arrington (Illinois) Young Republican in 1934 he built the club into one with 450 members and a downtown office. Among its members was W. Clement Stone, who would become a leading national Republican contributor. The Young Republicans became a major influence in local politics. Arrington ran for the state legislature in 1940. Key issues for him in the race where his support for civil service reform and keeping cab fares low. He lost but achieved a respectable 48% of the vote. Two elections later, he ran again and was elected.

The legislature in 1945 and for many years afterwards was part time. It met for a six month session in only odd numbered years. Legislators had no staff and no offices.

Arrington viewed being legislator as one who could consider what was best for the entire state as well as advocating for the needs of his district. He believed often the goals of the state and his district were the same. He thus versed himself in issues that were important both statewide and to his constituents.

The book provides insights into the historic Illinois legislature. Democratic legislators and Republican legislators congregated in different hotels. Lobbyists would frequent visit these hotels, especially since this was before the days of lobbyist spending disclosure. Thus, many legislative decisions were made in the hotel restaurants and bars.

Arrington had a strong sense of ethics. He was aghast at the power of lobbyists and sought to avoid even the appearance of impropriety. This was an era in Illinois political when kickbacks and influential campaign contributions were commonplace, and Arrington refused to put a part of it. Arrington became a leader of government and political reform movements.

Illinois became reform minded when newspaper disclosures informed the public how gamblers were funding many Illinois Republican campaigns. Some reporters even printed how other reporters were on the state payroll in jobs that had no duties, and how these reporters had been keeping this corruption quiet. A public outrage resulted. Arrington was a leading force in the effort to update the Illinois Constitution of 1870. In 1951, Arrington introduced 118 bills and saw many of them pass, which is a remarkable record anywhere, anytime. In particular, he learned the advantage of developing bipartisan cooperation. He and Democratic leader Alan Dixon (later a U.S. Senator) worked on successful measures that reconstructed the judicial system, created an independent appellate court system, gave the Illinois Supreme Court administrative responsibility over all state court systems, and created procedures for removing Judges for cause. The legislature was assisted with a reform minded Governor, Adlai Stevenson, who developed a mutual respect with Arrington. Arrington then moved into the Chairmanship of the House Insurance Committee, which he led from 1951 through 1954.

One person impressed by Arrington was the Senate Minority Leader Richard J. Daley. They admired the political adroitness of each other. They both viewed the goals of legislation as ones that benefits all, including Democrats and Republicans. Fortunately, this political friendship would continue to serve them as Arrington became a power in the Senate and Daley became the long time Mayor of Chicago.

William Stratton was elected Governor in 1952. Stratton and Arrington would often make a four hour commute together from the Chicago region to the capitol in Springfield. This allowed the two to discuss policies and cement their friendship. Together they helped create a toll highway system.

Arrington was elected to the State Senate in 1954 to fill a vacancy. Arrington also realized political reality and he worked to have his district redistricted by removing Chicago and its many Democratic voters from his district and instead allowed him to represent a Republican majority suburban district. Even as a freshman Senator, he introduced 110 bills and saw many of them enacted. Among his successes was creating an elected state Auditor’s position as well as an Audit Commission. This was partly in response to the discovery that the State Auditor had spent over half a million dollars on personal expenses and payroll padding which led to his trial and conviction. Arrington was appointed Chairman of the Audit Commission.

Other Arrington bills that were enacted included creating the Department of Children and Family Services with increased enforcement abilities and placing the Governor in charge of public assistance operations.

Arrington became a Senate Republican leader in the 1960s. He was a frequent critic of Governor Otto Kerner. When Kerner was sent to prison for an illegal stock deal, Arrington’s reaction was that “I don’t think Otto really knew he was doing anything wrong, but it turned out to be obvious that he was in the wrong.”

In a twist of fate, Arrington was expected to run for Congress for a vacant U.S. House seat in 1962. He instead opted to remain in the State Senate. Local Republicans then recruited an investment broker Donald Rumsfeld to run instead. Rumsfeld would win and later go on to become Defense Secretary.

Paul Simon, one of the reporters who had written how one legislator earned an average $100,000 annual salary on bribes alone, was elected to the legislature. Arrington was one of the few legislators who refused to join in a group legislative ostracism of Simon. Paul Simon would later be elected to the U.S. Senate.

Arrington was an advocate and leader in creating legislative staff in Illinois. Both legislators and staff appreciated Arrington for this innovation. Many staff people would continue seeking Arrington’s advice as they moved into other government positions.

Arrington was a leader in creating the National Conference of State Legislative Leaders. This group helped inform legislative leaders across the country of the usefulness of a modern legislature with independent research capabilities, its own staff, and sharing information amongst states. This group is credited with helping with the movement towards professionalism of legislatures in a number of states.

The Chicago Daily News called the 1967 legislative session as “Arrington’s session” as many of its major bills were the handiwork of Arrington. This included new laws regulating firearms, stricter air pollution standards, stricter water pollution standards, civil rights laws, stricter ethics laws, and mental health code updates.

One victory in the 1967 session had political consequences. Arrington sought to bar real estate brokers and sellers from engaging in racial discrimination. His bill was defeated in committee. He then had his defeated bill attached as an amendment to another, but far less controversial, bill without telling his own caucus members he was doing so. Since most Senate Republicans then were against opening housing markets to all races, they felt betrayed by their leader for sneaking the amendment through. They called a caucus without him, had the bill defeated, and began to openly defy his leadership.

Arrington though developed a good relationship with Richard Nixon. He was Chairman of a group of state legislators nationwide who supported Richard Nixon for President in 1968. His longtime friend Clement Stone was one of Nixon’s campaign contributors. Still, this access to the White House did not fully translate to his fellow legislators.

The 1969 legislative session was met with open rebellion from legislators from southern Illinois from both parties who resented the controlling powers of upstate leaders such as Arrington, Governor Richard Oglivie, and Mayor Daley. A key issue was creating a 3% income tax on individuals and corporations. Arrington was able to convince 21 of the 38 Republicans in his caucus to support it and he needed the support of 14 Democrats, all from Chicago, to get it approved in the Senate by 35 to 22. The bill passed the House by 91-73 and the tax was enacted. Arrington was also the prime sponsor of successful legislation to create a lobbyist disclosure law which the public mostly supported yet was quietly resented by some legislators. The voters, though, reacted negatively to the creation of an income tax. Governor Oglivie was defeated for reelection.

Arrington suffered a massive stroke in 1971. He recovered well enough to return to the Senate nine months later. Yet he chose not to run for reelection in 1972.

This is a well written and informative capture of a life of an influential political leader. It is good that this history is remembered. Readers should note that it was only a few decades ago when part time legislatures were easily manipulated by lobbyists and Governors. Voices like Russell Arrington changed the way state politics operated.