THE BLOG
11/05/2014 07:44 pm ET Updated Jan 05, 2015

Bruce Rauner's Victory: A Break From the Recent Past in Illinois?

Why is Illinois the worst place to live in America?

In April of this year, Gallup released the results of a national survey in which Illinois was ranked as the state with the highest percentage of residents who believe it is the worst place to live in the United States. Infamy of this sort is not easily earned, but instead accrues over decades.

Throughout its history, Illinois government has suffered a series of notorious scandals, including the criminal conviction of three of the last six governors. Such humiliations may help to make clear why Illinois residents trust their state government far less than the residents of any other state. While 62 percent of Americans trust their state governments only 28 percent of Illinois residents do. Moreover, Illinoisans are very resentful about the tax burden imposed on them by government.

Pat Quinn, the current inhabitant of the governor's seat in Illinois, is a very unpopular figure who Illinois voters just rejected in his re-election attempt against Bruce Rauner. Illinois now has a new governor-elect. What sort of leader will he be?

With that question in mind, it may be worthwhile to see what lessons can be learned by looking at the tenures of four recent Illinois governors: Jim Edgar, Republican governor from 1991 to 1999; George Ryan, Republican governor from 1999 to 2003; Rod Blagojevich, Democratic governor from 2003 to 2009; and Pat Quinn, who was in office for the last five years.

Jim Edgar was a mild-mannered, moderate office-bearer who became popular as governor, earning broad public support in Illinois during his eight years in office. His most significant accomplishment was cleaning up the state's dire fiscal problems. "When we came in, the state was basically bankrupt," he said. "We had a huge debt. At that time, it looked like the biggest debt ever, but it looks like child's play compared to now. But when I left office, we had the largest surplus we'd ever had." Edgar was also known for his well-run, clean administration of government. He retired after two terms in office, even though he easily could have won re-election.

George Ryan was a career politician who spent more than 30 years in office prior to his election as governor in November 1998. Ryan was known as known as an insider's insider, a pragmatic, deal-cutting politician. This enabled him to achieve certain accomplishments, including increased spending on transportation and education infrastructure. Unfortunately, Ryan was also the sort of Illinois politician who believed that his government offices gave him the right to enrich himself and his friends. He valued loyalty and steered clear of mundane details. This "I seen my opportunities and I took 'em" modus operandi helped lead to a corruption scandal in his administration. George Ryan went to jail and more than 70 others were also convicted. "George Ryan has always been a very political animal,'' said the political scientist John Pelissero. "He thought he understood how the political system worked in Illinois, that if you were going to be successful in political campaigns, there were certain things politicians did. It involved, certainly, having your people who'd come to benefit from your time in office continue helping you in your climb up the ladder. I think he surrounded himself with people who took that to an illegal level, in which there were huge conflicts of interest, the kickbacks, the bribe-taking, the use of state employees, the whole mess."

Rod Blagojevich, another career politician, grew up in the world of old-style Chicago Democratic politics. His father-in-law, the wheeler-dealer alderman Dick Mell, sponsored him as a candidate for the Illinois legislature, the US Congress, and the Illinois governor's seat. Full of energy and a natural gregariousness--but completely lacking in substance--Blagojevich won every election he entered. Unfortunately, like his gubernatorial predecessor, Blagojevich believed that his government offices gave him the right to enrich himself and his friends. He not only was impeached and removed from the office of governor. Blagojevich was also sent to jail for corruption.

Pat Quinn became governor in January 2009 when Blagojevich was removed from office. Prior to that milestone his career had two significant phases. First he was a political activist and later he became a perpetual candidate and career politician. Though generally known as a nice, honest man, Quinn notched few achievements prior to becoming governor. As governor, he generally supported liberal causes, such as the legalization of gay marriage. Unfortunately, Quinn's tenure has had two significant problems. First, he is widely considered ill-equipped to lead Illinois out of its fiscal and management meltdown. During his tenure, the state became known as one of the worst places in America to live. Secondly, the formerly clean-cut Quinn has become embroiled in ethics scandals at the Illinois Department of Transportation and the Neighborhood Recovery Initiative. These are the type of shenanigans that Illinois needs to move beyond.

So what lessons could Bruce Rauner learn from these four previous Illinois governors? First, he should focus on the state's most pressing issues, which include the need for fiscal discipline and pension reform. Like Jim Edgar, he should pursue these goals in a consistent, even-handed manner, without regard to personal loyalties or party labels. Second, he should make sure that his administration is well-run and clean, distinguishing him from his immediate three predecessors. His personal wealth should facilitate this good government approach, since he does not need a political office to help make him financially secure. Finally, he must actually get things done, rather than supporting the state's status quo or participating in political grandstanding.

It's too early to tell what sort of leader Bruce Rauner will be. However, if he follows the principles outlined above, his likely upcoming gubernatorial tenure will represent a much-needed break from the recent past in Illinois. Perhaps, over time the state can once again become one of the places where its residents are actually proud to live in.