by Mark Rhoads
Last Wednesday I was at the U.S. Capitol to see new members of Congress from Illinois sworn in and go to a reception for the Illinois delegagtion. Since I have a modest reputation in obscure circles as a historian of Illinois politics, Congressman-elect Joe Walsh asked me who I thought was the best GOP governor of Illinois in the last one hundred years. I instantly said Gov. Frank Lowden who led the from 1917 to 1921.
But then we altered the criteria a little to focus on who could do the best job helping the state financially. So I had to change my answer and said the best GOP governor was a Democrat. I am talking about Gov. Henry Horner who was elected in 1932 during the FDR landslide and started office in January 1933. He was the best fiscal manager, and one of the most honest men ever to hold the office.
On the day Gov. Horner reported for work, he found many boxes of stationery with the name of his predecessor, Gov. Louis Emmerson, at the top. He told his secretary tht she could not order any new stationery until the old supply was gone. That meant she typed letters for Horner to sign but then crossed out the name of Emmerson at the top and typed in Horner's name almost at the top edge of the paper. It was not pretty, but the supply lasted most of his first year before they ordered new. Gov. Horner was determined to set an example during the Great Depression that the state could cut spending and save money. He looked everywhere for ways to save money from letting prisoners grow their own food to using cabon filament light bulbs at the prisons that burned seemingly forever. He also took prison guards out of the patronage system. Because of his strong efforts to save money in all of state government including ending patronage jobs and fighting graft, some Republicans gave him votes in the state senate and in the House when he had to ask for he first permanent sales tax of 2 percent in 1933. State Sen. Lottie Holman O'Neil, a Republican from Downers Grove, was in he House when Horner was governor and she told me when she was elderly and I was in high school that Republicans felt confident in giving votes to Horner when he asked because of his sound fiscal management and his reputation for integrity even when he had to ask for a another one percent increase in the sales tax in 1935.
Gov. Horner had much more trouble with his own party than with the Republicans in the General Assembly. Horner fought graft in any form and kept the state payrolls free of patronage workers who did no work. Because of this, he had to fight for his renomination in the 1936 primary against a candidate of the Chicago machine that was then led by Mayor Ed Kelly and Cook County Democratic boss Patrick Nash. But with the help of Republican voters from downstate who admired his honesty and integrity, Horner beat he Kelly-Nash machine in the primary and won again in the fall. Horner tried to fight Kelly again in 1938 by successfully backing Sen. Scott Lucas to go to Washington but his health suffered and he died in office in October 1940 at the age of 61. Horner was a lifelong bachelor and a Lincoln scholar who left his collection of Lincoln artifacts to the state and the collection is now on display at the new Lincoln Presidential Library in Springfield. Horner was the first man of the Jewish faith to become governor and he is buried in the Mt. Mayriv Cemetery in Chicago. Unfortunately on his death, he was succeed by his enemy Lt. Gov. John Steele of McLeansboro who only served three months until January 1941 when a new Republican Gov. Dwight Green took over. Gov. Horner got Illinois through the worst years of the Great Depression with his super careful management of state spending first, before he asked for taxes.
Those who keep saying today that Illinois cannot cut enough spending to balance the budget say that over and over because they do not even want to try to look for spending cuts. If Gov. Horner were alive today, he could show them how and where to cut and it can be done and should be done before people are told they must pay more in taxes.