Nekritz: Frustration over Illinois' ongoing crisis prompted resignation

State Rep. Elaine Nekritz, a long-standing fixture of suburban politics, said she knew it was time to leave her job when she found herself without the energy to tackle intractable state problems and frustrated beyond the point of productivity by the yearslong budget battle.

"I can't tell you how many times I cried talking to a constituent," she said as social services fell into disarray and higher education funding lapsed during a standoff between the Democrat-led legislature and Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner.

Nekritz has spent recent weeks transitioning out of the legislative role she's held for almost 15 years. The Northbrook Democrat announced her resignation June 16, just days before lawmakers were due back in Springfield for a 10-day special session hastily called by Rauner that ultimately resulted in a budget.

Once the key architect of a public pension reform plan struck down by the Supreme Court in 2015, Nekritz becomes the latest suburban moderate to leave the statehouse.

Below is an edited transcript of a conversation with Nekritz this week.

Q. How did you get to the point where you decided to quit?

A. There was sort of a gradual sense that this (budget crisis) was not going to be resolved anytime soon. One of the things that struck me, was even if we resolved it nine months ago, a year ago, the hole was pretty deep even then in terms of the ability to pay for current services. Looking down the road, the work continues to require a lot of energy, and I felt like I had done everything I knew how to do. Giving someone new the opportunity to dig into that seemed healthy for the district and the state.

Q. What about the timing, just days before the end of the fiscal year and beginning of a special session?

A. I certainly didn't know about the summer special session when I decided on my mid-June departure date. I wanted to get through (the end of regular session) May 31, and it just seemed like a good time to announce before planned travel with my husband and grandchildren. I have not set an absolute date for when I'm leaving. We're looking for a successor.

Q. What was it like to be down in Springfield during these months of infighting?

A. It's been very hard on the rank and file. The sense at least I get in our (Democratic) caucus is people are exhausted, they're worn down by the chaos and the challenges the impasse has brought, the constant pressure of, "Is there going to be more session? When is the next political mailer going to come out?" It's just constant campaigning now.

Q. What about your relationship with Democratic House Speaker Mike Madigan, who's called on you to serve in leadership roles in recent years. Did the budget stalemate erode that?

A. I disagreed with much of the strategy he pursued, but I've disagreed with Madigan at other times over the years, so it didn't feel to me like it eroded my personal relationship. But going back to the overall impacts of the impasse, I can't tell you how hard it was to deal with. I can't tell you how many times I cried after talking to a constituent. I'd talk with someone who devoted their entire life to assisting victims of domestic violence and here we are, the system is crumbling. To not be able to help people in need is crushing.

Q. You've worked under three governors since you were sworn into office in 2003. What defines the work during Rauner's term?

A. It feels like a failure of governance. I lay more of that failure of governing at (Rauner's) feet, as the Democratic legislature has agreed with Republican governors even when it's been hard, but this time it just felt like there was an inability to achieve consensus.

Q. Can you talk about pension reform and how the state can address the problem after the courts have struck down attempts at changes, including a plan you wrote?

A. We have very limited choices. ... You can nibble around the edges, but there is not going to be a major change that is going to result in major cost savings. It's going to be an ongoing challenge for the governor and legislature to pay for that and continue to pay for current services. I just don't see any way to get around that.

Q. The political environment in Illinois seems incredibly toxic right now. How does the state get beyond that, or does it?

A. I think it's just going to be that way through the election cycle in 2018. We're too close now for there to be enough of a cooling-off period and a willingness to come together. It doesn't appear to me that the governor's staff changes are designed to bring people together.

Q. Are you happy with the budget that passed?

A. I'm happy there is a budget. It doesn't create opportunities for us to be looking at new innovations. It's really kind of a maintenance budget.

Q. You didn't get out of politics completely, as you've said you'll volunteer for state Sen. Daniel Biss' campaign for governor and stay active in local issues. Why decide to stay in it at all?

A. I still care. I still care about the issues, really, which has always been what's driven me in this work.

Q. What kind of advice are you giving to those who are thinking about bidding for your seat?

A. I try to tell them the truth about the district and the electoral side of the equation, fundraising, and the realities of what I anticipate what will be a very top targeted open seat. But I also try not to discourage people from running, because we need people to step up and do these jobs. I talk about the fact there are still opportunities to get things done, to be involved in interesting issues.

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