Column

Miller: Humorless Illinois partisanship wearing thin

The thin-skinned, strong-arm Statehouse partisanship of the past two and a half years reached out and infected the Illinois Conference of Women Legislators’ annual fundraising gala last week. 

COWL is a bipartisan organization that raises money every year to “assist mature women who wish to continue their undergraduate education,” according to its website. “The goal of the scholarship is to focus on deserving, qualified women whose educations were interrupted due to family concerns and economic problems,” the group says. Women who have shown “leadership promise through community service” are given preference.

Anyway, it’s a good organization, and it’s one of two events that I never miss each year – the other one being the House vs. Senate softball game. Both events allow legislators to do things together without partisan or leadership barriers.

They help build relationships and trust. Plus, they’re both a lot of fun. And after two and a half years of watching politicians fight each other to a draw on a state budget and economic reforms, we all need the occasional good time.

Lately, COWL has also brought in professional comedians to set the mood. This year’s comedian was Patti Vasquez, who has her own show on Chicago’s WGN Radio and did an increasingly rare interview with House Speaker Michael Madigan last week. 

The evening often has the feel of an old-time variety show staged by amateurs. It’s not supposed to be perfect, and that can sometimes make things funnier. A legislator singing way off key would be unlistenable in another context, but at the COWL event, it can be hilarious. 

Some legislators have lots of talent. Rep. Will Guzzardi (D-Chicago) stunned the audience with his exquisite piano playing abilities. That he chose to cover a Tom Waits song and sang it in Waits’ gravelly voiced style made his performance all that much better. 

Rep. David Olsen (R-Downers Grove) is a cheery and bright young man who generally speaks softly and is of, shall we say, slight build. But he sang a full-throated, a capella version of “Illinois,” our state song. Olsen mesmerized the audience.

Come to think of it, the men kind of stole the show last week. 

COWL always stages some sketches and songs that are drenched in political satire. Otherwise, what’s the point? 

Rep. Rob Martwick (D-Chicago) plays guitar and sings, and he wrote a parody of Otis Redding’s universally famous “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay.”

“I’m sittin’ here on the House floor / Waitin’ for a budget deal that I can vote for / I’m sittin’ here on the House floor / Wastin’ time.”

Martwick wrote several strong lyrics: “Sittin’ here resting my bones / ’Cuz the lobbyists won’t leave me alone / 200 miles I’ve roamed / Just to make this seat my own.”

But I particularly enjoyed the break: “Looks like nothin’s gonna change / Everyone keeps on passin’ the blame / I can’t do what the governor tells me to do / This state’s going down the drain.”

He got a big howl of approval for that one.

COWL also produced a dance routine this year to a song by R&B singer Cupid called “Cupid Shuffle.” 

Legislators onstage were dressed in checkered, western-style shirts just like Gov. Bruce Rauner wears in his latest TV ads featuring him in a pristine workshop and talking about the Democrats’ “duct tape solutions.” 

Some members held up large signs with “Do your job” written on them, which is a constant refrain of Rauner’s critics.

Some also carried signs featuring a large, menacing cartoon image of Madigan that was devised by the Madigan-hating Illinois Policy Institute. 

Duct tape was supposed to be part of the routine, but the gimmick was scrapped at the last minute because the players didn’t have enough time to remove the tape and change between songs. So they wound up with extra boxes of the stuff.

But a freshman Republican House member reportedly took a video of the skit during rehearsal last week and sent it to a member of her leadership team. Republican legislators told me later they were then yanked out of the dance, and by showtime last week, only Democrats performed during the routine.  

Unreal.   

Some people just don’t know how to laugh at themselves. 

Let’s hope the softball game survives intact. 

• Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and capitolfax.com.

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