An 8-point plan for the governor-elect

Thursday, November 04, 2010

To: Our next governor

From: A hopeful constituent

First, stay humble. More people voted for "not you" in Tuesday's election than voted for you.

And many of those who did vote for you were actually voting for "not the other guy." You didn't win this election so much as your opponent lost it.

So don't go thinking you've made the sale with the electorate and have earned a mandate to carry out your agenda, whatever exactly it might be.

Voters aren't happy with the way things are going in Illinois. I mean, in the name of change for change's sake, they almost elected a relatively unknown Republican back-bencher from the party's far-right-wing with a bumper-sticker economic plan that didn't come close to adding up.

And they still might. At this writing, Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn, with 46.5 percent of the vote, holds a small but seemingly insurmountable lead as the last votes trickle in, but if Republican state Sen. Bill Brady somehow prevails, we can note that voters are so unhappy they almost elected an indecisive, corny accidental governor who showed little resolve in facing down the special interests and entrenched powers that stand in the way of the genuine reforms we need.

So while I address myself to Quinn, much of my unsolicited advice will work for a Gov. Brady as well.

Second, hire people smarter than you are and listen to them. This is not a knock on your intelligence. No one can have his mind fully around all the issues that a governor has to deal with, particularly the economic mess, and still run a state.

Dump the "yes" men, the toadies, the lackeys and the party hacks. Bring into your inner circle at least one person from the other party or with a contrasting political philosophy. Encourage creative dissent in your ranks.

Insist that your advisers and deputies study seriously the policies and reforms instituted in the laboratories of the other states. Sit down with organizational researchers from the left, right and middle. What works? What doesn't? What's worth trying here?

Third, think before speaking. Activists, gadflies, pundits and lesser elected officials can float ideas, brainstorm aloud and give into rhetorical impulses, usually with little consequence. A governor who does this, however, risks appearing erratic and weak.

A strong leader doesn't allow controversies to simmer. He doesn't announce intentions unless they're backed by solid plans.

Fourth, demonstrate a ferocious commitment to reducing "waste, fraud, mismanagement and abuse." It's probably not nearly the multibillion-dollar problem in state government that so many critics believe, but the perception that elected officials tolerate it poisons their relationship with the public.

In polling, voters made it clear they want to protect the core services that make up most of the state budget, yet don't want to raise any taxes to pay for them, in large part because they don't believe government is making the best use of the tax money it receives. Do you blame them?

So streamline a few agencies. Combine others. Root out redundancies. Put all these moves online and explain them in plain English.

That way, when you come forward with your pockets turned inside out pleading poverty on behalf of the state, you'll have the credibility to ask for new revenue.

Fifth, forget who brought you to the dance. Yes, a lot of organizations and interest groups poured a lot of money into your campaign, and they expect to be your special pets going forward. But you don't work for them, you work for all of us.

Sixth, pick your fights wisely and wage most of your battles in private. There's a fine line between being principled and being stubborn, being a leader and being a grandstander.

Seventh, think long term. Though your goal shouldn't be re-election in four years, the truth is it will be a lot easier for you to win in 2014 if you've steadily cut the deficit, whittled at the debt, gradually lowered the unemployment rate, protected core services for the least fortunate and improved education.

A tall order, sure, particularly in times like these. But good governing is ultimately good politics, and you and the legislative leaders have to find some way to agree to make tough, even unpopular decisions with an eye not on tomorrow's editorials, but on the scoreboard that will light up several years from now.

Eighth, resolve to be a better communicator. Put everything you can online. Meet regularly with reporters and with leaders from both parties.

At least for now, remember we're all in this together.
Good luck.