`Big Jim's' Won't-Run Vow Stirs Illinois Politics

ILLINOIS Gov. James Thompson's decision not to run for reelection next year has left a huge vacuum in state politics. The four-term governor so dominated the state that his sudden announcement on Thursday left politicians scrambling.

``It creates a lot of ferment in Illinois politics,'' says political consultant David Axelrod. If other elected officials decide to run for a higher office, it could well mean that the top six statewide races next year won't have a single incumbent.

``I can't remember a situation in Illinois where that's happened,'' Mr. Axelrod says.

The 1990 election picture is still fuzzy, but political experts are already filling out the main details.

On the Republican side, Secretary of State Jim Edgar is considered the front-runner for the governor's post. Mr. Edgar is a moderate, well known and well connected. His likely opponent is Democrat Neil Hartigan, the state's attorney general, who is well known and beat everybody to the punch by declaring his candidacy for governor the same day as the Thompson announcement.

Both candidates are well liked and considered low-key politicians. Their front-runner status could be challenged by other state officeholders on the Democratic side or by former US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld on the Republican side. But some political analysts aren't looking for many surprises.

``There aren't any entrepreneurs out there,'' complains Richard Day, head of a strategic research firm in Evanston, Ill. ``It's real politburo politics: stand in line, stand in line, move up a step.''

On Friday, for example, Lt. Gov. George Ryan announced that he and Edgar had decided there would be no Republican primary. Mr. Ryan is also mentioned as a possible candidate for secretary of state, but said he and the current transportation secretary had also agreed there would be no primary.

Mr. Day says the one officeholder who might liven up the governor's race is state Treasurer Jerome Cosentino, a Democrat who has taken high-profile stands on issues, such as his push for credit-card companies to reduce their interest rates.

The other statewide officeholder who might be looking to move up is Democrat Roland Burris, the state comptroller. If these scenarios hold true, it could mean that the races for governor, lieutenant governor, secretary of state, attorney general, treasurer, and controller would be wide open.

Thompson announced he was giving it all up to spend more time with his wife and daughter. ``My family and their happiness and security are more important to me than anything else in the world,'' he said last week.

Thompson is not only the longest-serving governor now holding office in the US, he is the longest-serving one in Illinois history, and is one of its master politicians. Yet it's difficult to capsulize his governmental legacy, observers say.

He is a liberal Republican willing to raise taxes and build large projects, yet his ballyhooed Build Illinois construction program got negative reviews. Until last month, Thompson had also been frustrated in his three-year efforts to raise taxes to fund education and human services and had to accept a Democratic plan. Even his economic development agency has run into charges from the state auditor who says it illegally doled out huge amounts of money to businesses.

Thompson has 18 months left in office, though - time enough to shape his legacy as he has shaped Illinois politics for more than a decade.

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