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Commentary: Elected to govern, not to be re-elected

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 23, 2010 - They are blind, deaf and vulnerable to politicians who cannot see beyond the next election and hear only the sirens of political survival.

For weeks those who educate and nurture these youngsters at the state-funded Philip J. Rock Center and School in Glen Ellyn feared it would close - another victim of the state's horrific budget mess and shameless leadership. It remains open, thanks to an emergency rescue. 

However, its ultimate stability relies on a resurgence of the statesmanship personified for decades by the man its name honors. (The residential school educates children age 3-21 who are deaf-blind. The center provides a wide range of services in schools, medical settings, early intervention centers and homes statewide.)

Phil Rock served longer than any other Illinois Senate president - from 1979 until 1993. Longevity does not assure legacy. But Rock shepherded hundreds of far-reaching bills into law. More important, he engaged crisis instead of eluding it.

This staunch Democrat worked with Republican governors and lawmakers in both parties to deal resolutely with fiscal crunches. He chose to solve problems instead of trading blame barbs.

Rock braved criticism from his own ranks in 1983 when he became the first General Assembly leader to back Gov. James R. Thompson's call for an income tax increase to replenish a recession-ravaged treasury. Let Thompson and his fellow Republicans broil for a few months before we come to the table, many Democrats argued. But Rock and the General Assembly's other top Democrat, House Speaker Michael J. Madigan, sat down with Thompson and the GOP legislative chieftains, Sen. James "Pate" Philip and Rep. Lee Daniels, to fashion a package that preserved vital services and stabilized state finances.

Eight years later, the same four legislative leaders helped another Republican chief executive, Jim Edgar, extend an income tax surcharge and simultaneously make budget cuts needed to close a substantial deficit while sparing at-risk children.

"I think it's fair to say that I was not overly concerned about my tenure; and people who know me will tell you that's probably a fact," Rock says. "I did not worry about re-election. I did not worry about hanging on to a job."

Rock joined the Senate in 1971 and served only two years under another Republican governor, Richard B. Ogilvie, who also viewed public office as a place to lead, not just linger.

Ogilvie lost his bid for a second term after proposing and enacting a state income tax to restore fiscal integrity, substantially boost funding at all levels of education and bolster services for the truly needy.

"I think you're elected to lead," he said a decade later. "Remember my inaugural address? I really laid it out there for everybody to see: I was going to lead this state and, for better or worse, I was going to do it ... I don't want to be critical of anybody using devices that I didn't use, but I just happen to think being re-elected is not the goal of public service or public opportunity. That sounds a little bit, I suppose, like an afterthought. But I was elected to be governor, and I was going to govern and not just occupy the office."

Neither Rock nor Ogilvie was a perfect public official. Ogilvie was criticized for the way he raised his political funds; Rock took heat for the way he spent his. But their vision extended beyond the next election or news cycle. They refused to turn deaf ears to legitimate pleas for help and responsible governance.

We badly need their kind of stewardship today - for profoundly challenged youngsters who neither see nor hear, for all the children, for generations to come, for a state adrift in the choppiest of waters.

Mike Lawrence, former director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University, writes a twice-monthly column.

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