Abner Mikva carries a pocket-sized copy of the U.S. Constitution in his suit jacket. When he’s searching for inspiration, or seeking assurance about the direction of our country, he pulls out the dog-eared paperback.
“The Constitution itself is quite simple, but it works so well,” he said. “I refer to it often.”
Mikva, 89, has been concerned with issue of governance for almost six decades, having served in all three branches of government.
The Chicago Democrat served terms as a state lawmaker, a member of Congress, a federal judge and a White House counsel. (See sidebar) Over the years, he was often rumored to be in the running for various Supreme Court openings.
Connecting with longtime friends Newton Minow and President Obama…
For his long record of public service, Mikva was recently awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. The Better Government Association visited with Mikva at his Chicago home office to discuss his views on good government.
What follows is an edited version of that conversation.
BGA: You’ve served in some capacity in all three branches of government. That gives you a unique perspective.
Mikva: It does, and my take is, government works much better than people realize. There are many more honest and dedicated people in government than anyone realizes. There are hot dogs, and there are bad guys. And they’re the ones who get all the attention. People who are interested in making the system work and people who are interested in finding common causes just don’t get a lot of attention.
BGA: What is your definition of good government?
Mikva: Good government in my mind is people who get elected with the idea of making government work better. They’re not anti-government. They don’t come in with the idea that they’re going to shut it down, starve it to death. On the other hand, they realize government can’t solve all problems. The more local the problem, the more local it should be solved. There are some things village councils can do much, much better than Washington can do. And in my mind, a good government is one that recognizes the things it can and should do, and does them as diligently and as efficiently as it can, and recognizes that other things either can’t be done by government at all, or should be done by local units of government, or state government, rather than federal government.
BGA: What are the obstacles to good government?
Mikva: Some people use their office for their own personal gain. For example, if they own a farm or a law firm, they vote for laws for the purpose of furthering their own self interest…lately, the biggest problem has come from the fact that money plays such a big part in getting elected.
When I ran my first campaign for the Legislature, it cost $1,200. You couldn’t get on the ballot for that amount of money today. The result is these legislators, both federal and state, end of succumbing – not for personal gain, but for political gain – to the lobbyists and the special interests.
The amount of money you need to run, take Illinois, for example, just boggles my mind. Unless you’re Bruce Rauner, who can put in $60 million of his own money. You can’t afford to run without obliging yourself to special interests. The idea that people can give $100,000 to a state party is obscene.
Abner Mikva talks with the BGA about an array of “good government” issues while also reflecting on the major topics, and politicians, he’s dealt with during his expansive public service career. / Photos by Bill Glader
BGA: Can you give some examples of good government?
Mikva: I think the smaller the unit of government, the easiest it is for it to do well. I found most of the suburban governments I dealt with were honest. It didn’t mean they always did the right thing, and it certainly didn’t apply to all the suburbs. Nick Blase was a mayor of Niles for many, many years, and he ended up in jail. So they weren’t all honest. But places like Evanston, Wilmette and Winnetka, the people there who work in city government, and the people elected to village government are in it for all the right reasons.
Abner Mikva on Chicago Mayors
Longtime Chicago politician Abner Mikva tells the Better Government Association his thoughts on Chicago mayors Rahm Emanuel, Harold Washington, Jane Byrne and both Daleys.
BGA: In your experience, is government being running better or worse these days?
Mikva: At the national level, we’re doing far worse. And that’s because, most people are elected by running against government. I found the most cynical statement I can remember in recent history was when Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell said after President Obama’s first election was that the biggest job of the Congress is to keep Obama from getting a second term. That’s not the vision of government you want leaders to have. It said nothing about infrastructure, nothing about health, nothing about of our position in the world, nothing about trade or education.
‘We’ve got to stop the other guy from getting re-elected.’ That’s the anti-government attitude that people have running for federal government these days. As a result, the Congress just doesn’t work at all.
President Bill Clinton…
BGA: How about Illinois?
Mikva: Illinois I think has done reasonably well. We passed a lot of good legislation under Pat Quinn and the Democrats. I’m not saying this in a partisan manner because some of it was hard to pass. For instance, the increase in the (state) income tax (which ended Jan. 1). Without that increase, we’re facing an $8 billion deficit that Gov. Rauner is going to have to figure out to fill.
In terms of the state government itself, most of the state agencies are running much, much better when I was there in the ’50s and ’60s. There’s a lot less patronage. There are more good people running agencies. The department of human services, which probably spends the most money, is probably functioning better than it ever did. They made some cuts that made some people very unhappy, but were necessary, and (it) is basically an honest program.
Same is true of our university system. I think Chris Kennedy (Former University of Illinois Board Chairman) cleaned up a really bad situation where admissions were being done on a patronage basis rather than qualifications. So I would give Illinois pretty good grades.
BGA: What about state pension reform?
Mikva: They made a pass at pension reform. I know the BGA wanted them to do more, and obviously more could have been done. But what I can realize from my present age is that that set of pension problems was built up over 50 years of the Legislature putting in special provisions for special groups. So, all things considered, the pension bill – that probably won’t pass constitutional muster – was pretty good. I have the feeling though the court might well strike it out. Then I don’t know what the Legislature and the governor are going to do.
One of the things that have bothered me about the recent gubernatorial election was that neither candidate was being specific about what they were going to do.
At least we had Quinn’s record to look at. He passed the tax increase, and you could either credit him or blame him for that. He signed the elimination of capital punishment. You could either credit him, or blame him for that. He signed the law allowing gay marriages. You could either credit him or blame him for that. The problem with our governor-elect is I don’t know where he stands on any of those things. He’s never held any office of any kind in government, elected or appointed. All I know is he spent a lot of money and he has a very attractive wife who made some very good commercials.
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BGA: We can’t discuss state government without including Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan.
Mikva: Well, I like Mike Madigan. I’ve known him for a long time. But he should have stepped down several years ago, especially when (Illinois Attorney General) Lisa Madigan was preparing to run for governor. I think six years ago, when (former Gov. Rod) Blagojevich was running a second time, Lisa might well have taken him on and we could have avoided a lot of troubles. But obviously, she couldn’t run if her father wouldn’t step down as speaker.
I’m not for term limits, but I am for elected officials measuring their stay. A self-discipline kind of thing…my problem is, Mike has been around so long, and is so set in his ways, that progress has to be made around him.
BGA: It seems that many of these state pension and taxing issues could be solved by amending the Illinois Constitution. Why not call another constitutional convention?
Mikva: The last time we had a (state) constitutional convention was 1970, and I’m not sure the 1970 constitution was that much better than the 1870 constitution that it replaced. There were so many places where the 1970 constitution was so specific and so detailed. And the more you try to run a state by specific details, the worse it is…
And there are so many people worried that another constitutional convention would be even worse. If the state calls another constitutional convention, it should be mainly to get rid of stuff, not to put anything else in. And the problem, if you hold a constitutional convention, all the special interests convene and take over the writing of it, which is what basically happened in 1970.
President Jimmy Carter.
BGA: What kind of hope do you hold for the future of our government?
Mikva: I think it starts with young people. My wife [Zoe] and I are involved in what’s called the Mikva Challenge, where we get high school kids in the city of Chicago involved in politics and government. We get them involved in campaigns, we get them involved in internships and in setting up councils at their schools to discuss problems that they’re interested in.
And it’s restoring not the old-fashioned civics that I had in high school, but “action civics.” The more kids get involved in government, the more they learn how government really works, the more they’re going to really be influential in future government decisions.
I really see resurgence.
I think our country is cyclical. The current generation is very anti-government. My generation was pro-government. We came out of World War II, and we were really fired up about making government better and getting things done. And we accomplished some marvelous thing in those 20-30 years. So there are cycles. And each time we’ve come out of those very, very low depressions with a new enthusiasm, maybe because a new generation is coming along saying, “Hey, it doesn’t have to be that way. We can make these things work for us.”
I feel these cycles do happen…we’ll get our mojo back.
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