Here’s the inherent dilemma that keeps me up at night as the head of a full-service anti-corruption watchdog organization: How to hold elected officials accountable, and critique their policies, and still get them to support our legislative agenda.
It helps to be fair, accurate and nonpartisan, and hope they understand our mission and their responsibility.
But pushback is inevitable, and it can derail our initiatives when the politicians we’ve called out decide the best revenge is to kill or water down our proposals.
It happens. But, thankfully, most of our allies in state and local government assuage their wounded egos and try to get our initiatives passed. That’s what makes our watchdog work so rewarding.
This conundrum came to mind recently when I saw a quote from Susan Garrett, a former state senator from Chicago’s north suburbs, who was one of the Better Government Association’s most consistent Springfield friends.
She was decrying the legislative loopholes and inside deals that allow some politicians convicted of job-related crimes to maintain all or some of their public pensions.
Garrett said elected officials convicted in corruption cases at any level of government in Illinois should automatically lose their taxpayer-supported pensions.
The BGA agrees.
Garrett retired from the Senate last year to pursue other interests, and recently re-entered the reform world through a new door as board chair of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, one of the BGA’s nonprofit partners.
ICPR is the organization that, along with CHANGE Illinois, led the successful ’09 fight to put financial limits on contributions to Illinois political campaigns.
Since then, the Citizens United case has thrown campaign finance up for grabs, ICPR’s longtime executive director moved on and their iconic patron, Dawn Clark Netsch, passed away.
So ICPR is retooling. But they’re in good hands.
Garrett and her co-chair, former state rep Beth Coulson, were among the elected officials who understood that we shine a light on them, and on Springfield’s dystopian torpor, to prompt reflection, and hopefully reform, not to vilify or demonize anyone.
That’s something I hope House Speaker Mike Madigan thinks about in the wake of our nasty public spat over a recent BGA investigation he didn’t like. Madigan accused me and the BGA of pursuing a political agenda aimed at discrediting Democrats.
I told him our only agenda is better government, and if it appears to focus on more Democrats than Republicans these days it’s because his party controls most of government in Chicago, Cook County and the state Capitol.
Ironically, I gave Madigan a shout-out in another recent newspaper column for helping us pass a bill aimed at reducing wrongful felony convictions.
That column also thanked some of our other legislative partners in successful reform efforts, including Sens. Mike Jacobs, Dan Kotowski, Daniel Biss, Heather Steans, Kwami Raoul, Don Harmon, Pam Althoff and John Cullerton; and Reps. Mike Zalewski, Fred Crespo and Scott Drury.
They respected our jobs as watchdogs. And did their jobs as lawmakers.
That doesn’t resolve the dilemma of conflicting agendas, or guarantee me a good night’s sleep, but it does say we can disagree without necessarily being disagreeable.
And that’s progress.
Andy Shaw is president and CEO of the Better Government Association, a statewide watchdog organization based in Chicago that shines a light on government and holds public officials accountable. Look for his column monthly in the SJ-R. He can be reached at email@example.com or 312-386-9097.
Image credits: Susan Garrett / www.ilga.gov and ICPR / Facebook