Steve Sewall
Aug 24, 2015 · 6 min read
On June 7, 2015 the Chicago Tribune declared THE WAR FOR ILLINOIS A war “worth having”.

Chicago, 2020. Throughout the first eight months of 2015, Illinois’ reform governor Bruce Rauner was powerless to enact a single substantial reform. His all-out struggle with House Speaker Michael Madigan for control of Illinois government kept him from doing so. By September, the so-called War For Illinois had devolved to trench warfare, with no end it sight. Illinois’ future was at risk.

In the face of this danger, the state was paralyzed. Its leaders and its political media had no response to the September 1 warning of Moody’s Investors Service that “the current impasse underscores the state’s government weaknesses”. For them, the Rauner/Madigan cockfight had to be fought to the death, costs and duration of this lethal standoff be damned.

These unacknowledged costs were prohibitive. Unacceptable. Most visible among them was the outrage of a public sickened by the pain and suffering of Illinois’ most disadvantaged citizens, all of it directly owing to the refusal of just two men to resolve their differences. Costs also included massive losses in precious time, energy, resources, services, growth opportunities and credit downgrades. Finally there were unprecedented losses in public faith and trust in government itself, perhaps irreversible.

Illinois’ steady deterioration towards self-destruction (and Chicago’s too) now recalled the story of the cold-blooded frog sitting in a slowly warming pot of water, adapting to the liquid that eventually boils it alive.

Finally Bruce Rauner took responsibility. Early one September morning he realized that victory in the War for Illinois would be pyrrhic. Losses would far outweigh gains. So he cancelled his appointments for the day and headed out for a long walk in the woods. A single two-part question concerned him: How can we end the War for Illinois and then put Illinois back on track for recovery and growth?

Next day he met with Madigan for three hours. Ten days later Rauner, Madigan, Senate Speaker John Cullerton and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel appeared together on statewide prime time TV. With a single gesture of painful yet shared financial sacrifice, they ended the War For Illinois and got Illinois moving forward.

Finally the Governor and the House Speaker really had something to smile about. (Photo Chicago Tribune)

The occasion was historic. All Illinoisans saw it. It marked the end of the politics of self-destruction in Illinois and the beginning of a new way of doing politics that has made Illinois the social and economic powerhouse of the Midwest. The past five years, one pundit quipped, have been straight out of Disneyland.

Illinoisans of all ages have always taken enormous pride in their sports teams. Now they take pride in their communities, their political leaders, their state and themselves as Illinoisans. That’s because Illinois has learned how to tap the enormous power of mainstream print and electronic media to foster in communities of citizens and sports fans alike the qualities of trust, teamwork and pride in good work done.

This sea change, however improbable, arose from two fundamental, common sense insights born of Rauner’s long walk in the woods.

The first came when Rauner wondered why his inaugural call for shared sacrifice, backed by his own one dollar annual salary without benefits, had failed to catch on with Illinoisans. Why had it fallen like a brick? Instantly he realized that shared sacrifice required him — a very wealthy man — to feel the same financial pain he’d be asking all Illinoisans to feel.

The second came when Rauner recalled his inaugural pledge to “fix years of busted budgets and broken government” in Illinois. On reflection, he realized that his use of televised attack ads to sway public opinion — like his $20 million ad blitz attacking Speaker Madigan — was doing more to break Illinois government than to fix it.

These insights informed Rauner’s three-hour meeting with Madigan. Saving Illinois, he said, means “painful sacrifice literally shared by everyone, you and me included”. And turning Illinois around means dethroning the Cash Is King election-time political attack ads that have divided and polarized Illinois for decades. “We’ve got to find a way to curb it,” Rauner told the Speaker, “King Cash killing us.”

Madigan agreed, knowing, among other things, that Rauner himself is King Cash in Illinois. Then the two men met with newspaper and TV station owners to devise entirely new ways of connecting with citizens: ways that would end decades of media-driven polarization by giving top-down leaders the ongoing media-based input — the experience, ideas and wisdom — of bottom-up citizens. They insisted on demonstrably productive political discourse that would 1) facilitate equitable solutions to Illinois’ multiple financial crises and 2) connect citizens and governments in ways that demonstrably serve citizens and move the state forward. It was quite a conversation.

Within days, Rauner initiated a seven step course of action, with Madigan’s support:

  1. The governor convened Madigan, Cullerton and Emanuel to say he was donating $27.6 million of his own money to a special Saving Illinois fund. (This amount matched his $27.6 million donation to his gubernatorial campaign.) This legacy-making gesture prompted comparable sacrifices from all three Democrats. (If not, Rauner would go it alone on all six steps below, empowered by their rejection.)
  2. The four leaders then announced their historic sacrifices on “Growing Illinois”, the first of a three-month series of weekly 60-minute prime time TV programs expressly committed to making Illinois citizens and governments responsive and accountable to each other.
  3. Growing Illinois made national headlines, transforming Illinois politics overnight. Instantly four goats became four heroes. Coming at a time of national disgust with government, 12.8 million Illinoisans began to think that their leaders just might be in their corner and working on their behalf.
  4. In this sea-changed climate, wealthy Illinoisans rallied behind the Four Horsemen of Illinois, donating hundreds of millions of dollars to Saving Illinois. (During Detroit’s bankruptcy, long-time Detroit residents and companies did likewise.)
  5. Soon Illinois’ energized news media were eagerly discussing the equitable implementation of shared sacrifice with finance experts like Ralph Martire of the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability and Lawrence Msall of the Civic Federation.
  6. Over the next three months citizens and politicians used media to discuss and prioritize sacrifices ranging from increases in fees and taxes (sales, property or income) to pay freezes and salary cuts. Discussions included ways of avoiding wholesale eliminations of essential jobs and programs. Always, the focus was on shared sacrifice.
  7. Rauner drew on this statewide public input to draft, with Madigan’s input, the shared sacrifice legislation — his Grand Bargain for Illinois — that was approved by the Illinois House and Senate after debate in January, 2016. Credit ratings rose as the likelihood of bond defaults in Chicago and Illinois decreased.

Since then, Illinois has turned itself around. Its population/business exodus has become a population/business influx. Illinois now enjoys a competitive advantage over other states thanks to its citizens’ newfound, media-driven ability to Connect, Collaborate, Compete and Construct.

All this thanks to the Four Horsemen of Illinois: to a Republican who took a long walk in the woods and to three Democrats who stepped up with him at the eleventh hour to save Illinois.

Chicago educator and media entrepreneur Steve Sewall, Ph.D., designs and implements civic media formats and writes about links between ethics, education, government and media at

Steve Sewall

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