Week in Review: Covid-19, jobs, ethics & more

Gov. James R. “Big Jim” Thompson, Illinois’ longest-serving governor, passes away at age 84. This week Illinois says goodbye to its 37th Governor, the history-making James R. Thompson. Illinois’ longest-serving governor, Thompson passed away last Friday at the age of 84.

Governor Thompson left a legacy as a builder and dealmaker. He won the biggest gubernatorial landslide in living memory as well as the closest nail-biter in Illinois history. Around the state, buildings and other projects stand today as monuments to the governorship of Jim Thompson.

Known as “Big Jim,” the six-foot-six Thompson served as Illinois Governor from 1977 until 1991. He was born on Chicago’s West Side in 1936 and went to the University of Illinois’ Chicago campus and Washington University in St. Louis, before earning his law degree from Northwestern University. Thompson became a prosecutor in the office of Cook County State’s Attorney Benjamin Adamowski, a longtime thorn in the side of the Daley political machine in Chicago. Thompson headed the appellate division of the state’s attorney’s office.

Thompson moved to the staff of Illinois Attorney General William Scott in 1969. Before long, he was a federal prosecutor in Chicago, where he made his name pursuing political corruption cases. In 1971, he was named U.S. Attorney for Northern Illinois. Corruption convictions of former Governor Otto Kerner and a series of powerful city officials, state legislators and other government employees followed.

In 1975, Thompson announced he would be a candidate for governor the following year. After feuding with the Daley machine for four years, the incumbent, Dan Walker, was defeated in the primary by Secretary of State Michael Howlett. Thompson was elected with close to 65 percent of the vote, the biggest gubernatorial win in Illinois since 1848.

Thompson brought his “tough on crime” persona to the governor’s office when he was inaugurated in 1977. He brought back Illinois’ death penalty and created the “Class X” level of felonies, enacting longer sentences for crimes such as armed robbery and attempted murder. The tougher penalties for crimes made necessary the construction of more prisons in Illinois, which would become a major state building project in the 1980s.

The Governor and the First Lady, Jayne Carr Thompson, celebrated the birth of their daughter Samantha at Memorial Hospital in Springfield in 1978. Samantha was only the second child to be born to a sitting Illinois governor. That same year, due to a change in the 1970 state Constitution, Thompson would have to stand for a second term, just two years after winning his first. He again prevailed easily, winning with 59 percent of the vote.

Thompson’s second term coincided with a nationwide recession, and the Midwest “Rust Belt” was particularly hard hit. Unemployment went up to over 11 percent in Illinois and manufacturing jobs were in steep decline. Thompson worked hard to reverse this trend, leading the effort to build overseas export markets for Illinois products and encouraging foreign companies to invest in Illinois. One of his biggest successes was the decision by Diamond-Star Motors to build a joint Mitsubishi-Chrysler facility in McLean County.

Running for a third term in 1982, Thompson would have a much harder time. The poor economy and the first mid-term election of the Ronald Reagan administration made for a more uphill climb. Thompson’s Democrat opponent was U.S. Senator Adlai Stevenson III, the son of a former governor. But Thompson held on, winning by just 5000 votes in a race that was not able to be definitively called in his favor until the results were formally certified three weeks after Election Day.

At the outset of his third term, Thompson proposed a tax increase of close to $2 billion, with hikes on gasoline and liquor as well as income taxes. The resulting deal saw some of those increases enacted along with a temporary income tax increase. Another deal led to higher gasoline taxes and more state funding for mass transit in Chicago and highway maintenance downstate. Some increases in education funding also followed.

Thompson was not as successful after he was re-elected in 1986, this time by a much more comfortable margin. Thompson was forced to veto more than $300 million from the state budget, portions of which were upheld by the legislature in the fall. In 1989, Thompson signed legislation enacting a temporary tax increase for education and local government. This increase was later made permanent.

During this time, Thompson launched a major development program called Build Illinois. Funded by bonds, Build Illinois led to $2 billion in new capital construction across the state, the centerpiece of which was the Illinois State Library across the street from the Capitol building in Springfield. The program created needed jobs, but left the state with more debt to be repaid over many years.

It was also during his fourth term that Thompson achieved another of his most successful agreements: the vote in the closing hours of the 1988 spring session to get the funding for a new stadium for the Chicago White Sox.

The White Sox deal was the culmination of Thompson’s years as an accomplished bipartisan dealmaker in Springfield. In 1980, he convened a summit at the Executive Mansion to address a funding shortfall for Chicago schools. He refused to let participants depart until they had come to an agreement. Thompson negotiated deals between labor and management as well as between the state and the city of Chicago.

Thompson was a fixture in the Springfield community. During his years as Governor, he made the Executive Mansion his family’s home. It was his daughter’s first home, and the First Family was often seen around town, just like any other Springfield resident. He helped to open the Illinois State Fair by going down the giant slide in blue jeans. During a protest of controversial legislation, Thompson once set up a beer tent on the Mansion’s lawn and invited protesters to have a drink.

Thompson even held an Antiques Fair every year on the Mansion’s lawn. He was an admirer of the arts, and not only required a small percentage of all public building contracts to be set aside for artwork, but also created the state’s network of artisan shops. Thompson was a friend of historic preservation efforts around the state, creating the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency.

The Thompson years were a period of change in state government. After the legislature enacted a pay raise over Thompson’s veto in 1978, voters amended the state Constitution to cut back the size of the House of Representatives from 177 to 118 members, and to eliminate multi-member districts with minority party representation. In his final year in the office, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its ruling in the Rutan case, declaring hiring for state jobs based on party affiliation to be unconstitutional.

Big Jim Thompson left the governor’s office in 1991 after 14 years, retiring as the longest-serving governor in Illinois history.

“He was a hands-on governor who loved the process of getting things done in Springfield, and his accomplishments still stand strong today,” said House Republican Leader Jim Durkin. “Our state was fortunate to have such a dedicated leader.”

Thompson returned to practicing law after his time in office, this time with the firm of Winston and Strawn in Chicago. He was picked by President George W. Bush in 2002 to be one of the members of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, better known as the 9/11 Commission.

He will be remembered as a man who presided over state government during dramatically changing times, a governor who left a legacy of public works projects around the state, and a leader who represented an era when elected officials could put partisanship aside and reach agreements for the good of the people.

Pritzker administration places mitigation restrictions upon Metro-East, adjacent counties. The new guidelines were announced for “Region 4,” a cluster of seven Illinois counties that centers on the Metro-East region, which comprises the Illinois side of the St. Louis metropolitan area. The guidelines reduce the sizes of most lawful indoor gatherings within Region 4 from ‘no more than 50 persons’ to ‘no more than 25 persons.’ The guidelines shut down the barstool areas of bars and taverns, and impose a mandatory 11 p.m. curfew/closing-time order upon all bars, restaurants, and taverns. Other restrictions are also imposed.

The Pritzker move follows a sharp increase in COVID-19 reports and case counts in the Metro-East region. Particularly significant are numbers showing that an increased percentage of those tested within this region are positive for presence of the COVID-19 coronavirus. Positive case counts, as a percentage of total case counts, are used to make a reasonably accurate guess as to how contagious the virus is in a particular population of humans and how fast it is spreading. From August 14 through August 16, Region 4 positivity rates exceeded 8%.

These increased case counts in southwestern Illinois were only part of what has become a familiar weekly pattern in Illinois’ overall COVID-19 numbers. Daily reports from the Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH) continue to show that while most Illinoisans have not caught the virus, they are vulnerable. This week the total number of tests performed passed 3.5 million, the number of positive cases passed 210,000, and the Illinois death roll passed 7,800. The vast majority of people who contract COVID-19 will recover. While they are sick, though, they could spread the virus to others. Many persons who have not yet been infected are persons of advanced age or with pre-existing conditions that could make them prone to a severe disease course and medical complications.

University of Illinois develops faster, safer saliva test for coronavirus. One of the most frustrating challenges facing potential coronavirus patients has been the delays in getting back some kinds of test results. Even after a potential patient has undergone testing to see if he or she has been exposed to the virus, with one group of widely used COVID-19 tests it still takes many days to get results. This is especially significant because, in recent experience, this delayed-response group is the class of COVID-19 tests that produces the most accurate results – results without “false positives” or “false negatives.”

If people who have actually been exposed to COVID-19 are going to be asked to quarantine themselves, and if reliable contact tracing is to take place, then there has to be a test for COVID-19 that is both fast and accurate. University of Illinois researchers have developed “Shield T3,” a test procedure that appears to meet these criteria. A team of chemists and engineers, led by chemists Paul Hergenrother and Martin Burke, developed a saliva-based test strip procedure that enables a single lab to test 10,000 individual samples per day, with minimal risk to lab personnel. The success of the U of I saliva test was confirmed when the procedure received emergency full approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) this week.

House GOP Questions Pritzker Move to Vacate Patronage Ban amid Madigan/ComEd Scandal. In a recent court filing, Governor Pritzker is seeking to vacate a set of court decrees that seek to prevent politically motivated hiring, as well as politically motivated firings or other punishments against public employees, known as the Shakman decrees. Against the backdrop of one of the largest patronage scandals in the history of the state involving House Speaker Michael Madigan and ComEd, State Representatives Tim Butler, Deanne Mazzochi and Grant Wehrli held a press conference questioning Pritzker’s move.

“This year we've seen federal authorities indict and secure guilty pleas from Democratic members of the General Assembly for bribery and fraud,” said Rep. Mazzochi. “ComEd admitted to multiple pay-to-play schemes to bribe the most powerful politician in the state, Mike Madigan, and his cabal of loyal minions. I caught Pritzker's administration using state funds to hire his campaign worker through a no-bid vendor contract. And now Pritzker demands that the courts get rid of prohibitions designed to stop government employee political machines? Now is not the time to make corrupt government easier.”

The Shakman decrees consist of three federal court orders issued as a result of a class-action lawsuit filed by Michael Shakman against the Democratic Organization of Cook County. The decrees, issued in 1972, 1979 and 1983, prohibit politically motivated firings, demotions, transfers or other punishments of government employees. It is also unlawful to take any political factor into account when hiring public employees, except for positions such as policymaking. These decrees are binding on more than 40 offices statewide, including the Governor’s office.

“While Speaker Madigan is embroiled in one of the worst patronage hiring schemes in the history of our state, why is Gov. Pritzker trying to remove a system that prevents patronage hiring and firing in government? It makes no sense,” said Rep. Butler. “We should be taking steps to strengthen the law against patronage. If the Governor would stop trying to go it alone and work with the General Assembly, we could be doing that right now.”

Despite the Governor’s push to vacate the decrees, the court-appointed monitor for the state’s hiring practices, Noelle Brennan, reported earlier this year that Pritzker’s administration still has not completed a comprehensive employment plan to address the issues protected by the decrees. In fact, she said the administration began restricting communication between her staff and state agencies.

“This is a step in the wrong direction taking place at the wrong time,” said Rep. Wehrli. “We are continually hearing of new instances where people in high positions of public trust are abusing that trust and providing their friends with jobs. If Governor Pritzker is truly interested in raising the ethical bar for public officials in Illinois, rather than trying to vacate the decree he should be seeking to expand it.”

During the press conference, the representatives noted that this latest revelation gives even more credence to Republican calls for a special session to address the state’s ethics laws and the scandal surrounding Speaker Madigan and ComEd.

Illinois unemployment rate drops to 11.3%. The Illinois unemployment rate dropped from 14.5% to 11.3% in July, a decline of 3.2%. This figure conveys only a partial picture of the current Illinois economy. Illinois Department of Employment Security (IDES) numbers indicate that only 93,200 net nonfarm payroll jobs were created in July 2020. This number, had the overall labor force remained unchanged, would have reduced the unemployment rate by only 1.3%, rather than 3.2%. The primary unemployment number reported by IDES only counts persons who are not employed and who consider themselves to be in the labor force actively searching for work. Discouraged workers who have completely left the labor force can account for more than half of the unemployment-rate drop in July 2020 - 1.9% of the total 3.2% decline.

The Illinois jobless picture continues to be extremely negative both in relation to the U.S. as a whole (11.3% in Illinois, 10.2% nationally) and in relation to where our state was twelve months

Navy Pier to close on Tuesday, September 8; reopening scheduled for spring 2021. The Chicago lakefront attraction and gathering place has been stymied by the coronavirus outbreak. Since 2011, the 3,300-foot-long Navy Pier has been maintained and operated as a public-private partnership that is supposed to financially break even. During the COVID-19 pandemic, this has become impossible. Navy Pier, Inc. announced plans this week to make Labor Day, September 7, its final day of operation in calendar year 2020.

The Navy Pier closure plan comes on the heels of the previous closure of key Navy Pier attractions, including the lake-view Ferris Wheel and the Chicago Children’s Museum. Full shuttering of the Pier will result in the closure of approximately 70 Pier-based business shops, and will force the layoff of hundreds of workers.

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