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ILLINOIS: Billy the Kid

6 minute read

When a boyish-looking Republican namedWilliam G. Stratton was elected governor of Illinois last year, not much was expected of him. The 39-year-old politician with a pompadour and an adolescent voice seemed unlikely to fill Adlai Stevenson’s shoes. The liberals labeled Stratton a reactionary. Even the old pols in his own party looked upon him as an upstart, and some of them had an uncomplimentary nickname for him: “Billy the Kid.”

Last week, as the Illinois legislature packed up and went home, the Republican detractors of Billy the Kid were looking back on his first six months in office with amazed admiration. Stratton’s record made slow-starting Adlai Stevenson’s first six months in office look like a political-science-class picnic.

After 42 Years. In three major legislative fields, he succeeded where Stevenson failed:

¶ He got the legislature to pass two bills strengthening the Chicago Crime Commission, tightening the perjury law and permitting immunity for key witnesses;

¶ He put over a long sought new mine safety code;

¶ Most surprising of all, he pushed through a bill to reapportion the state’s legislative districts, a measure which Illinois governors have sought in vain for 42 years.

In part, these successes reflect the fact that Stratton was working with a legislature controlled by his own party. (Adlai Stevenson had a majority in only the lower house during his first session, in neither during the second.) But the Stratton successes also refect a high degree of practical political ability.

The debit side of the Stratton ledger showed some substantial items. He wiped out a Stevenson increase of $8,000,000 a year in truck license fees, an act that his opponents and even some of his friends said was an unmerited reward to trucking interests for supporting him last year. Some Illinois political observers thought that Stratton had also traded away too many of his aims, e.g., reform of the antiquated judicial system, to get his reapportionment bill through. But Stratton insisted that he would fight for judicial reform in the next session of the legislature. Welfare and education leaders were horrified because he cut the state welfare budget 8% and refused to give the University of Illinois a bigger budget.

On appointments, Stratton (who handles all patronage personally) came up with a 200-volt shock for those who considered him reactionary: he appointed a Negro, Chicago’s able Lawyer-Editor Joseph Bibb, as director of public safety, one of the state’s most sensitive and important positions. Bibb is the first Negro to occupy a cabinet post in any state since Reconstruction days in the South (TIME, Dec. 29). Said Stratton: “If Bibb makes a success of his job, as I’m convinced he will, it’s bound to contribute to better understanding between the races and to have a good effect all around.” So far, Bibb is doing a highly competent job, has proved that Stratton was right.

Last week Governor Stratton gave Illinois liberals another pleasant surprise. He vetoed a loyalty-oath bill sponsored by Republican State Senator Paul W. Broyles, whom the liberals consider a bush-league Joe McCarthy. There were some sound anti-subversive points in the bill, said Governor Stratton, but it went too far when it called for loyalty oaths from every public employee down to the township road dragger.

Career Politician. The politicians and pundits who sold the new governor short failed to give sufficient weight to a basic fact: Bill Stratton was well schooled in practical politics. His father, William J. Stratton, a backslapping ice & coal man from Gurnee, was Illinois’ director of conservation (he made almost every owner of a gun or a fishing pole a game warden) in the 1920s, served as Illinois Secretary of State in 1928-33. Young Bill, fascinated by politics, roamed the State Capitol, watched the legislature at work, and hit the campaign trail with his father before he was out of knee pants.

When he went to the University of Arizona (his mother was living there for her health), young Stratton majored in political science. After he graduated in 1934, he got a job as a traveling salesman in Illinois, chiefly because he could meet a lot of people that way. During the campaign last year, he had a standing bet with newsmen that before he walked a block in any town someone would greet him with “Hi, Bill.” He never lost a bet. Said he: “My father used to say he knew 250,000 people in Illinois. I think I know more than that.”

In 1940, at 26, he was elected Congress-man-at-large and soon got a reputation as a reactionary. He was an isolationist, e.g., against Lend-Lease, and he permitted a crony of German Propagandist George Sylvester Viereck to use the Stratton congressional frank. But that did not seem to hurt him politically in Illinois. At 28 he was elected state treasurer, the youngest man ever to hold a major state office. After serving in the Navy (lieutenant, j.g.) in the Pacific, he went back to Congress as a reformed isolationist (he beat Emily Taft Douglas, the wife of U.S. Senator Paul Douglas). When he was nominated for governor last year, he was again serving as state treasurer.

A New Meaning. All the political experience paid off when Stratton moved into the governor’s office. Adlai Stevenson had kept himself somewhat isolated from day-to-day political maneuvers, but Stratton inaugurated an “open-house” day on which he would talk to anyone who came along. (“It serves two purposes. I meet the people and they meet me.”) He and his attractive brunette wife, Shirley, invited legislators over to the governor’s mansion for dinner. Inevitably, the conversation got around to the Stratton program. At the right moment, he told the Republicans that the reapportionment bill was the one he “really wanted.” At the same time, he let the Democrats know that he would not push the legislation they did not want if they would help pass his “must” bills that meant the most to him.

As the legislators headed home last week, no one was ready to say flatly that William Stratton would outdo Adlai Stevenson’s good record as governor. But after six months of Stratton, Billy the Kid had a different meaning in Illinois. It meant a hard-riding, fast-drawing governor who knows how to get what he wants.

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