Mid-July at the Library, continued:
Rep. Lilly had said she was confident in passage of same-sex-marriage legislation, which she said was “in [her] heart.”
A man identifying himself as a Certified Public Accountant followed the softball question about same-sex marriage with a hard ball question, addressing the senator: “If you do anything in Springfield in our very corrupt state, do something about corruption.” He specified “gerrymandering,” complained, “The way it’s set up, candidates know they will win,” continuing at length in this vein.
“Each of us is vulnerable in a primary,” replied the senator. If an opponent surfaced, he might have said. Lilly, appointed in 2010, had run unopposed in primary and general in 2012 and would do so again in 2014. The senator had run unopposed in the general election every year but one — he said nothing about this — since he was elected in 2002. He was to be opposed in the 2014 primary, by a Galewood-neighborhood resident with public-employeee-union background, sworn to defend pensions, but not in the general, from which a credible — if certain-loser — opponent removed himself a week or so after being slated, citing family issues, after initially expressing enthusiasm for the attempt.
This was the just-retired deputy police chief of the suburb of Stone Park, who had displayed admirable enthusiasm at a Republican slating session. His chances of victory were microscopic, but he would have given Republicans, God help them, something more to do at the polls than leave the senator’s name unchecked.
The CPA continued: “To say the pension situation is complicated is a classic delaying tactic. We are spending way more than we are taking in. People leave Illinois [in large numbers]. . . . Taxes are huge, hit even homeless people, some of whom I help. You are part of the problem not the solution.”
Neither the senator nor Lilly directly engaged him. Nobody in he audience picked up on his series of questions. He engendered no groundswell. There was none in blue, blue Oak Park. Indeed, another audience member asked, “Why don’t we tax retirement income?” ignoring the CPA.
“We are looking at that,” said Lilly. “It’s on the table of [sic] discussion.”
Another took the offensive vs. the two up front, said he was “embarrassed by Illinois,” citing National Public Radio, Wall Street Journal, and other outlets in support of his embarrassment. “It’s the worst state . . . “
Lilly rose to the occasion: “I have an opinion,” she said with vigor, pursuing a tactic of simple denial. “The media doesn’t represent the facts accurately. The facts don’t state that. . . . I’m very proud to live in Illinois . . . Look at your [sic] history . . . We must come together . . . I celebrate that. . . . This is a great state to raise your family!”
The senator was less defensive. He conceded “some dramatic government failures” but claimed without specifics, “We are climbing out of the hole.” He rejected the Chicago Tribune’s editorial view of matters, complained that the Trib had “bashed the heart out of us.”
The evening wore on. An aide brought the senator two frosted water bottles. Lilly swigged an orange drink. An audience member praised an activist who said the state should amortize its pension debt.
“I had the opportunity to present that . . . ” said Lilly, recounting her activities in Springfield, as she often did in these town halls. She spoke dramatically, as she often did, and then as the senator explained what was wrong with this proposal, nodded vigorous assent, as she often did.
The state’s most powerful Democrat, House Speaker Michael Madigan, was mentioned as part of the Illinois problem. Lilly turned this promptly to discussion of his power over legislation, called it “interesting” how legislation comes forth in the house, as if to be ironic, drawing laughs. She paused, then added that she had “gone and asked the speaker” to bring a bill forth (pause), “and it was brought up,” as if to show it’s easier than people say, thus undercutting her supposed irony, which she apparently hadn’t intended in the first place.
It was a sort of oratorical ju-jitsu, checking laughter, presenting the speaker as not so bad after all. She was all smiles, kept hand gestures going throughout, appearing quite sure of herself, as if in effect toying with her listeners, perhaps mostly unaware of what she was doing.
North Avenue issues were raised again, with reference to a sizeable grant to the clout-heavy United Neighborhood Organization (UNO) for a charter in Galewood in 2009, including big spending on the post-announcement celebration. (All had been widely reported, especially in detailed Sun-Times accounts.)
The senator responded carefully: “I have no knowledge of money being wasted.” This in the face of major news stories, suspension of UNO funding, buck stopping at top man (he was to resign months later), etc., about which the senator apparently had not felt prompted to inquire. He pleaded ignorance, said no more.
Other issues arose — fracking downstate (strongly opposed by environmental groups, got its legislative OK and was judicially good to go by December, 2014) , non-medical-doctor dispensing of psychiatric drugs, etc. Rep. Lilly responded generically, apologetically. The pension comes first, she said. The senator backed her up with a graph thrown up on a screen showing the size of pension outlay, asking along the way if anyone had “missed a payment.”
The senator had asked earlier how many work for the government in any capacity. Twenty-five or so of about 100 in the audience raised hands. Like a good trial lawyer, he asked now knowing the answer: No payment had been missed. Again, it was a so-far-so-good response to one side of the issue, namely payouts to pensioners, without reference to the state’s fiscal health. He practiced narrow-gauge politics that suited his supporters.
Asked about the high cost of college education, he said health care costs “are at the heart of it.” It was unusual to hear tuition connected to health care in this manner — rather than to hugely increased demand thanks to government-loan programs. A unique perspective, I suspected.
Lilly picked up on the cost of college, melding it seamlessly with funding of public schools. Missing not a beat, she offered a solution — “My first thought is to establish a committee” — before revealing her personal, unassailable conviction: “I believe our education system is in crisis, from kindy-garten [sic] on up. . . . This. Is. Crisis. Level.” (Said slowly, every word a stop.) Legislators “should make sure it’s equitable for all citizens . . . . Our great state can do better.” (Said with a bang-flourish, as if she had nailed it. Unclear what was nailed, as was much of her sui generis commentary.)
Asked about the state’s not paying its bills to care-providers, Lilly again waxed assertive: “This is, to me, a no-no. We need to pay these vendors — and that’s what they are — on time. It’s unconscionable . . . happening over and over. . . . That’s why I’m here,” apparently meaning in the legislature.
She closed, urging the questioner, “Give us a call.” This while giving no telephone number or email address or even street address, which for what it’s worth is a few blocks inside Austin, one of the city’s highest-crime-rate neighborhoods.
This location was symptomatic of her low-profile, virtually nonexistent approach to representing mostly white, well-policed Oak Park, not to mention communities in a long meandering line to the northwest as far as Franklin Park, eight miles from that office, the whole business being a stark example of the state’s 2010 redistricting by its ruling party to make sure black and other Democrat office-holders are elected with only token opposition, as the senator mentioned at one point in these meetings, with reference to federal law in the matter. He was apparently referring to the requirement to “remedy a violation” of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. If there was such a violation in Illinois districts in 2010, nobody talked about it. But for the senator, it provided a patina of respectability to his brand of redistricting.
One of the 25 or so pensioners in the audience asked about the state’s running out of money. This is “the scariest part” of the problem, said the senator — ignoring yet scarier parts such as the need to cut back on police and fire protection, with what that dictates in terms of quality of life.
“Most don’t understand” the situation, he said in self-defense. “We [elected officials] pass money through” to citizens who depend on them, he said, presenting government as conduit rather than deciding factor, ignoring legislators’ bad decisions and collective responsibility.
As to health-care costs in general, Lilly again, this time light-heartedly, called up her Springfield experience: “I attended Medicaid 101 [for rookie legislators, three years into her incumbency? chuckling at her levity, then incredibly] When are we going to talk about the cost of health care? I was the first to bring it up,” presumably in a legislative committee meeting, probably Health & Healthcare Disparities, where she was vice-chair. The first to bring up the high cost of health care? When was that?
“For me, health care is not affordable. [Yes it is.] We need to talk about that. [About time that happened.] I think the high cost does impact access! [Wow, who would have thought it?] I see every day [in her Loretto Hospital position, vice president of external affairs and development?] what it costs. Where do we begin?” Wow and double wow. Where indeed?
The senator had heard enough. He offered analysis: “The cost of the uninsured is the main problem with the high cost, [namely in] their use of emergency rooms. Obamacare is going to dramatically lower costs by just eliminating this alone.” He did not share his fellow Democrat’s assessment of it as coming “trainwreck” and was to be sorely disappointed.
The keenly insightful Lilly added, “The healthier you are, the less costly it is.” In the coming age of ObamaCare, she said, “each state is to have its own health exchange.” Some states had declined already, however; most would do so eventually.
Next: The Senator in far-off Wood Dale —