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A Cautionary Tale from Illinois for the GOP About Crony Capitalism

If a business fails in Illinois, and the owner(s) have no clout, do Illinois politicians care?

One of my earliest assumptions about politics is that the Illinois Republican Party is what the national Republican Party will eventually evolve in to. From former Governor Jim Thompson, a left-leaning politician who had a cavalier attitude toward spending taxpayer and borrowed money, to former Governor George Ryan, the convicted felon who not only shared Mr. Thompson’s fiscally-challenged philosophies, but had no problem risking public safety in the name of playing the part of a self-described “deal maker,” the Illinois GOP has few differences from the Illinois Democrat Party.

While the current Governor Bruce Rauner has only held the office for almost one year, his ties to the Democrat Party give little hope for a reversal of principles that are common among his modern predecessors.

Last Saturday, I attended a harness race card at Balmoral Park Race Track in Crete, which is south of Chicago in Will County.

From the full parking lot to the crowded grandstand, the atmosphere was like that of a Saturday night in the eighties. Unaccustomed to what “business as usual” once was, there were people who left because the crowd was “too big.” Unfortunately, the reason for this huge-by-today’s-standard crowd was that Saturday night, December 26, 2015, was the last day of racing at Balmoral Park.

Just like a human being, or any living organism, a business is vulnerable to the equivalent of illness or death from inside and/or outside forces, and the loss of Balmoral Park and its sister track, Maywood Park – which closed in October – are no exceptions.

Yes, horse racing in the U.S. is in a downward spiral. A lot of blame lies on people within the industry who resisted change, exploited old fans without giving much effort to finding new fans, and neglected their facilities by not keeping those facilities clean, or trying to keep questionable characters from intimidating other customers.

As for Illinois racing, there is also the burden of Illinois politics.

Before Governor Rauner had taken office, Pat Quinn had governed the state with a leadership style that is best described as theoretical, since it is difficult to tell if his decisions were based on incompetence, corruption, or possibly the perfect combination of both.

While in office, Mr. Quinn had vetoed two bills that would have legalized slot machines at racetracks. Among his excuses are:

The gambling market is oversaturated.
Those bills didn’t go far enough to prevent corruption.
I do not want gambling at racetracks.

Despite these excuses, there is one that he never mentioned, but may hold the most validity.

In 2011, the Chicago Tribune published a racing-related story. One of the people who left a comment stated that Mr. Quinn was holding a personal grudge against former Arlington Park owner Richard Duchossois, and that then-Governor Quinn was opposed to any legislation supported by leaders in the horse racing industry for that reason. Although such a comment is difficult to prove, the fact that Mr. Quinn refused to attend the inauguration of Bruce Rauner – the candidate who defeated him in that gubernatorial election – is indicative of petty, childish behavior.

As is sometimes the case in Illinois politics, Mr. Quinn owes his climb to the Governor’s office to the indictment of his predecessor, Rod Blagojevich.

During the first trial of former Governor Blagojevich, it was revealed that a representative of the then-governor tried to extort a campaign contribution from one of the owners of Maywood/Balmoral in exchange for the then-governor’s passing of a racing-related bill. Although that person refused to “contribute” to Mr. Blagojevich’s campaign, the bill was signed into law. And it was this incident that lead to a lawsuit against the Illinois race tracks by Illinois casino owners, and a $70 million-plus verdict against Maywood-Balmoral ownership.

With such a huge loss, those two tracks filed for bankruptcy protection, and the denial of 2016 racing dates by the Illinois Racing Board.

Did Democrat governors contribute to the virus that brought these two businesses down? Yes. However, it is important to remember that the corruption and shameless cronyism practiced by Republican Governor-turned convicted felon George Ryan, plus the nomination of GOP machine-supported candidates that lead to the election, and re-election of Rod Blagojevich. And while Pat Quinn assumed the role of governor due to his former role as Lt. Governor, Mr. Quinn narrowly defeated his Republican challenger, Bill Brady. While Mr. Brady won ninety-nine Illinois counties, Pat Quinn won only three; Cook County, the home of Chicago, was one of those three.

To put this into a nationwide perspective, the Republican Party lost control of Congress in 2006 as a result of many Americans being disillusioned with the seemingly-shameless Republican embrace of cronyism, as well as the GOP’s refusal to challenge the Democrats. The 2008 elections were another attempt by American citizens to tell the GOP that its refusal to act as public servants will not be tolerated.

And while professional members of the Republican Party claim that they did not support the passing of Obamacare, it is the cronyist, self-serving nature of the current GOP that made Democrat control of Congress and the White House in 2008, and ultimately Obamacare, possible.

As a side note, it is the Illinois Republican Party’s decision to not support former Senator Peter Fitzgerald that helped then-Illinois state senator Barack Obama win the 2004 U.S. Senate Race, which helped him win the 2008 presidential race.

When he won an Illinois Senate seat in 1998, then-Senator Fitzgerald financed his own campaign. Therefore, he had no reason to “play along” with other Illinois politicians. And it was this vote-your-conscience mentality that caused the Illinois GOP to force Mr. Fitzgerald to not run for a second term.

Since that decision to protect the Illinois Machine, the U.S. has seen a President that shares many similarities with former Illinois Governor Pat Quinn: both have a history of indulging in crony politics, such as intimidating businesses, such as Gibson Guitar, both have been described as petulant and impossible to negotiate with, and both are the product of the disapproval of GOP cronyism.

This year, I am going to miss my road trips to Balmoral Park. However, I am well aware of why that track won’t hold racing this year, and perhaps, never again. But a big outside-the-business reason why Balmoral, as well as other Illinois businesses have met this fate is because of citizens who do not comprehend the power of their votes, and because of politicians who not only do not comprehend the ripple effect of crony politics and capitalism, but also the reason why there is an Oath of Office. So goes Illinois, so goes the nation, if the nation does not see Illinois as the cautionary tale that it is.


Share if you think crony capitalism isn’t good for America.

Chuck Gruenwald

Born in Chicago and raised in northwest suburban Cook County, Chuck Gruenwald developed an unfavorable opinion of machine politics quite early in life. In addition to cars, electronics, law enforcement, and politics, Chuck enjoys writing, and is also a horse racing fan. He has recently written op-eds for