With a term that spanned from 1977-1991, Illinois’ longest serving governor spoke about the state’s political problems when he visited campus Thursday.
Former Governor Jim Thompson delivered his address, “Perspectives on Illinois Government: Past, Present and Future” to celebrate 50 years of WSIU broadcasting and 15 years of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute.
His address focused on bridging the division in today’s political parties, how corruption can ruin the perception of politics and how to get southern Illinois back on its feet economically.
Thompson encouraged young people to get involved in politics by keeping themselves informed and volunteering in any campaign. He said hard work is all it takes.
“You have to be reasonable, patient, a good listener and agree with friends in other parties,” Thompson said. “Reach out and make yourself bigger than you are as a political a figure, and the more you do that the more you will be accepted as more than a political figure.”
SIU President Glenn Poshard said Thompson’s message is something students should consider.
“I hope some of these young people sitting here listened to what he had to say about finding ways to walk across the aisle, bring people along from both parties,” Poshard said. “We don’t have to have a state and a nation that won’t sit down and talk to each other. We can be whatever party we are without just crucifying the other party.”
Thompson said there must be communication between all involved parties for the state government to function properly.
“It takes a certain kind of leadership,” he said. “You’ve got to want to do it. You don’t only have to have good; ideas you had to sell them … We’re there to serve our constituents, not to continue to fight.”
Illinois has long been criticized as a corrupt state, as well as one with great financial issues. Thompson said he thinks the state might not be the most corrupt, and there are thousands of people in public office doing good things that go unnoticed.
“Here’s the sad part: It’s lives wasted,” he said. “We get the wrong idea about public service. It will discourage young people.”
Negative campaign ads and issues of money driving the campaigns are what Thompson said he thinks shed a negative light on politics. However, he said he thinks the ability to raise money for a political campaign is directly related to a candidate’s strength.
“It goes too far. Some of that stuff is just bad,” he said. “Voters are a lot smarter than we give them credit for. It’s not a question of who’s good or bad. It’s a question of compared to who.”
Thompson said he thinks there are three things the state needs to do to fix its deficit. He said the state needs to pay back the billions that it owes, repair the pension system and tax equally.
“Our public pension systems are in real trouble, and it’s not a question of whether we will reform them or how to reform them,” he said. “We have to reform them, or they may not be there for people who have public pensions in the state of Illinois.”
Thompson said there are three key parts to Illinois’ economy, which are agriculture, manufacturing and services. Services are the only sector that is not taxed, he said.
“We’ve got an economy that’s out of sync with our tax system,” he said. “That’s not good. Every day that goes by makes it more difficult,” he said. “We need to broaden the base and lower the rates. We’ve got to confront the fact that we can’t let a growing sector of our economy escape the tax bracket.”
Thompson said one of the state issues that affect southern Illinois came after a decision made by one of his successors.
“What Governor Blagojevich did to the Department of Natural Resources was awful,” he said. “He cut that budget in half. One game warden for four counties — that’s a joke. We need to restore that department. That department has to be strengthened, and nowhere is that more important than southern Illinois.”
Along with restoring the Department of Natural Resources, Thompson said southern Illinois should invest in finding clean ways to burn the region’s coal abundance.
“We’ve got to get the people of southern Illinois to understand that they should be the hub of a multi-state regional economy,” he said. “We have got to get our neighbors from other places to invest in this region. Southern Illinois has to think of themselves in a much greater way than they have.”
The public policy institute hosted a luncheon with Thompson Thursday. Adrian Miller, a sophomore from Carbondale studying political science, attended and was able to speak with the former governor.
“I liked listening to his stories, and he connected well with the youth,” Miller said. “He had a real sense of how young people can get involved and not let the corruption of our state’s past discourage you.”
Ashley Holshouser, a junior from Anna studying journalism, said she thinks Thompson genuinely cares about people more than just what his party believes.
“I’m more Democratic and liberal, but I don’t like that the two parties are so divided,” she said. “Even though I usually vote Democrat, I would vote for him.”
Thompson also commented on Illinois’ size and how each region should be recognized and treated fairly. He said legislators must make labor and business equal partners to bring businesses and corporations to the state.
“You do it by keeping taxes as low as you can by giving businesses the economic backbone they need, by supporting schools, higher education, the community college system,” he said. “You do that by solving problems that the business has, by making sure that they’re not getting jerked around and by having an open door so that they can come see the governor, and if they need help you help them.”