May 13, 2009
BY CAROL MARIN Sun-Times Columnist
Sheila Simon needed a hot shower when we talked on Tuesday.
It was a reminder that sometimes the small stuff becomes the big stuff.
I was calling about reforming Illinois, the only subject I will write about until the Legislature in Springfield adjourns at the end of the month. And I was calling Simon because -- besides being a law professor, a former elected officeholder and the daughter of the late Sen. Paul Simon -- she is a member of the Illinois Reform Commission.
She was yearning for a shower because an "inland hurricane" hit Southern Illinois last week, ripping through Carbondale, where she lives. In three seconds the wind went from 3 mph to 80 mph. Trees snapped, siding peeled off buildings, and power was lost for thousands. Hot water was lost along with it. Five days later, Simon and her family were not, as she put it cheerfully, "smelling like ourselves . . . so I'm glad we're talking on the phone instead of in person."
Sheila Simon is a reformer. But she is also, by instinct and inclination, a politician. And she doesn't regard "politician" as a dirty word. So earlier last week, before the storms hit, Simon was quite comfortable working the halls of the General Assembly in Springfield, talking to lawmakers and their staffs, many of whom are not wild about what the reformers are proposing.
The Illinois Reform Commission, created by Gov. Quinn and headed by former prosecutor Patrick Collins, is without question trying to attack the big stuff: putting limits on currently limitless campaign contributions; establishing far more controls on how millions in state contracts are handed out; lessening the iron-fisted grip of legislative leaders by giving more power to rank-and-file lawmakers; reforming the state's hiring practices, and unlocking information the public and the press are prohibited from seeing on the inner workings of government.
With only 18 days to turn these proposals into laws, there is a huge amount of work to get done and significant opposition to overcome despite the global embarrassment that Illinois' politics have become.
One of the interesting conversations Simon had last week was with Steve Brown, the longtime spokesman for House Speaker Michael Madigan. Brown's criticism, something he says he has expressed many times, is that the reform seekers, by and large, haven't ever contributed to a political campaign. "Kind of curious," Brown said by phone Tuesday, "that people hold themselves out when they have never made a donation."
"That was an interesting assessment to me," Simon said. "I'm regarded as not being a political contributor and yet I think we are regular and active participants and not naive in anyway."
Brown argues that with regard to the last two indicted Illinois governors, Ryan and Blagojevich, "neither of the two gubernatorial scandals would have been affected by limits." But beyond that, he says, "If you talk to people who worked in limit systems, all they talked about was how much time they had to spend raising money."
Though Simon disagrees with the first point, on the second she does not."I watched dad go through elections with federal limits. I'm not saying it was fun. But you don't run for election because it's fun, you run because there's something you want to accomplish in government."
Simon didn't convert Steve Brown in that conversation, and Brown didn't convert Simon.
But they were courteous to each other. And they listened.
Readers should know that down in Springfield, they're listening to you, too. All those e-mails and phone calls and letters you've been sending to lawmakers are grabbing their attention. If you want reform in Illinois -- or for that matter, if you don't -- see the list of people you can contact on Page 23. Avoid form messages. Tell them when it comes to reform, skip the small stuff.
Tell them to think big.
Tell them soon.