Conservative Spotlight: Renew Illinois

The state of Illinois could use some serious renewal. Not long ago, the state–one of the five largest in the nation–was controlled by Republicans, a model for successful Midwest GOP politics. Illinois incubated Abraham Lincoln’s political career as well as Ronald Reagan as a boy. But now, Democrats have taken over the state, Republicans are torn by internecine strife, and the state is threatening to leave the column of swing states for presidential elections and join the league of solidly Democratic havens. The state’s policies are trending correspondingly liberal.

The Renew Illinois Foundation–which has an affiliated PAC–is a new 501(c)3 trying to stem this tide. “I’m a 25-year Heritage Foundation member and I saw that our state was in trouble and I decided to do something about it,” said Irwin Essenfeld, president of the foundation.

Renew Illinois has a Contract with Illinois, similar to the Contract with America that helped Republicans take control of Congress in 1994, that it encourages policymakers and candidates to adopt. The contract calls on signatories to “solemnly swear, that I will report and oppose government corruption, and support and vote for legislation that encourages Illinois economic growth. I will vote to reduce taxes, fees and regulations. I will vote to eliminate program duplication and eliminate waste, fraud, and abuse. I will vote for tort reform, including a limit on awards for pain and suffering. I will vote against any weakening of the Property Tax Extension Limitation Law (tax caps). I will vote for free market reforms in education, aimed at creating a school system based upon competition and parents’ school choice. . . . I will vote for legislation that supports the sanctity of human life and the sanctity of marriage between a man and a woman.”

Tax-hikers are targeting Illinois’ salutary Property Tax Extension Limitation Law, said Essenfeld. “They desperately want to change it because it’s a cap and it’s working. I was a real estate consultant until two years ago,” he noted.

Scandals have rocked the Illinois Republican Party in recent years, perhaps making the anti-corruption opening to the contract a wise choice. Conservatives, alarmed at the far-left beliefs of this year’s Democratic Senate nominee Barack Obama, were disappointed to see conservative GOP candidate Jack Ryan self-destruct over his own scandal. The Illinois GOP is still casting about for a candidate. “Obama is a Marxist,” said Essenfeld. “He’s going to make Dick Durbin [Illinois’ current Democratic senator] look like a conservative.”

Republicans do still have a foothold in state government. “The secretary of the treasury is Republican,” said Essenfeld.

Says the group’s mission statement: “The past few years have been frustrating due to fiscal mismanagement and political corruption. Illinois’ fiscal problems are simply the result of irresponsible run-away government spending. Our elected officials have sought to solve their reckless spending problem by raising our taxes and fees.”

Renew Illinois also promotes social conservatism. The group acknowledges that government means the imposition of morality on the governed, and those who pretend otherwise are simply immature. “If this is to be a society run by adults, we need to get over that,” says the group’s website. “Morality is simply defined as ‘a system of ideas of right and wrong conduct.’ The purpose of such a system is not to impose random values but to set rules for those human behaviors that impact the social fabric. It’s what keeps billions of people on their side of a two-lane highway.”

Illinois’ GOP, state conservatives’ natural home, is split by conflicts between its moderate elements who like to spend money and want to jettison social issues, and its conservative wing. “Maybe California is just as bad in terms of conservatives vs. moderates,” Essenfeld said. Speaking of California, Essenfeld said that Illinois is headed toward a similar fiscal catastrophe. Most important to Illinois conservatives right now, he said, are “the policies on revenue and spending, because the politicians are driving this state in the same direction as California. Taxes and regulation are driving businesses out of the state. We just issued $10 billion in bonds.”

Perhaps the state could turn to the example of one its most prominent native sons. Renew Illinois’ tribute to the late President says: “A native of Illinois, Ronald Reagan stood on principle throughout his political career. As a result, he is remembered as a giant of the 20th Century. Renew Illinois is honored to continue the work for Republican principles that President Ronald Reagan represented.”