From IWU Magazine, Fall 2011
The Power of Compromise
To end the gridlock of partisan politics, Brad McMillan ’84
calls for a renewed era of civility in public service.
Story by KATE ARTHUR
Photos by MARC FEATHERLY
McMillan in the Senate chamber of the Illinois State Capitol in Springfield.
Two posters, propped side by side, stand in Brad McMillan’s office. One shows Illinois
Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon, a Democrat. The other depicts Illinois Congressman Aaron Shock,
When asked his impressions of the two, McMillan describes Simon as an outstanding
public servant who’s as honest as you can get. He praises Shock for his common sense
and tireless work ethic.
McMillan’s ability to speak in positives — and negatives — of both Republicans and
Democrats reflects the kind of bipartisanship most Americans agree is sorely lacking
in our current crop of elected officials.
Five years ago, followers of Illinois politics would not have been surprised if McMillan
had announced his own plans to run for office. As district chief of staff for Ray
LaHood, who served seven terms in Washington representing Illinois’ 18th congressional
district, McMillan was considered a Republican rising star.
McMillan had something different in mind. He pictured a Midwestern think tank that
would promote a return to statesmanship, developing ethical, bipartisan public servants
who would work together to help solve our most pressing problems. It would also engage
college students, planting the seed for a lifetime of civic involvement.
The idea came as LaHood was considering a challenge to former Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s
reelection bid in 2006, leaving McMillan to ponder his next career move. He’d always
held a strong interest in leadership training and was a board member of the nonpartisan,
nonprofit Dirksen Congressional Center in Pekin, Ill. He put his thoughts on paper,
proposing the Dirksen Center and Peoria-based Bradley University jointly develop a
leadership institute. Board members enthusiastically approved the idea.
In January 2007 the Institute for Principled Leadership in Public Service was launched
at Bradley with McMillan as its executive director.
The institute’s motto, “Changing America Through Bipartisan Leadership,” only partly
describes its ambitions. Recent public-policy symposiums have brought national government
and business leaders to central Illinois to discuss the future of transportation,
health care and public education. With Bradley University, the institute has also
created several new courses for training “ethical, bipartisan and collaborative leaders”
in public service, and it sponsors an array of community outreach programs.
The irony of trying to promote ethical public leadership in a state that has a recent
history of sending governors to prison isn’t lost on McMillan. “I just tell people
we’ve got a lot of work to do,” he says with a smile.
Following Blagojevich’s recent federal trials and convictions, McMillan joked with
an Associated Press reporter that Illinois has “bipartisan corruption,” since both
Democratic and Republican governors will likely be serving jail terms at the same
time (Blagojevich is awaiting sentencing on his case). Still, it saddens him.
“It’s really disappointing,” he says. “It’s just another very sad chapter in Illinois
politics and government. I try to remind people we’re also the state of Abraham Lincoln,
U.S. Senator Paul Simon, U.S. Representative Bob Michel — true statesmen who did their
jobs with complete integrity. We need to turn back to that kind of principled leadership
An early start
McMillan, right, listens to Bob Michel at an IPL public forum held at Bradley University.
As an IWU student, McMillan interned for Michel when he was Republican leader of the
U.S. House.(Photo courtesy of IPL)
McMillan likes to pull stories from history to show how bipartisanship works. President
and Democrat Lyndon Johnson relied on Senate Majority Leader and Illinois Republican
Everett Dirksen to get the votes needed to pass the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act.
He notes that legislators from opposite sides of the aisles used to speak in very
positive terms about each other from the Senate and House floors.
“You compare that to what’s going on today and it’s night and day,” McMillan says.
“But you can teach civility and bipartisanship. I have seen firsthand lights go off
in students’ heads that there might be a better approach if they listen to the other
side before making a judgment. We can return to civility. I really believe that. But
there are so many cultural influences fighting against it. You have to be very intentional.”
The 49-year-old father of four remembers civil political conversations with his own
father, who was active in local politics in Peoria, and credits him with his interest
in leadership. One of the reasons he chose Illinois Wesleyan was because he saw opportunities
to get involved.
“One of the great things about Wesleyan is you can assume leadership responsibilities
pretty quickly and really feel like you’re part of the University,” McMillan says.
And he did. As a political science major with an interest in journalism and pre-law,
McMillan became an editor of the Argus and vice president of Student Senate. But it was a Washington, D.C., senior internship
that turned him toward a political career — an experience he credits to Professor
John Wenum, former chair of the Political Science Department.
McMillan interned for Michel, former Republican minority leader of the U.S. House
of Representatives, who was known for his bipartisanship. After graduating, McMillan
returned to work for him before attending law school at Southern Illinois University
in Carbondale. He practiced for 10 years, serving as a senior staff attorney for the
Illinois Supreme Court and Illinois Appellate Court before opening his own law firm
When Michel retired, LaHood succeeded him and McMillan was asked to serve as district
chief of staff. LaHood’s reputation for fairness appealed to him. The congressman
led bipartisan “civility retreats,” bringing leaders and their families together.
He also chaired some of the most contentious debates in the U.S. House, including
President Bill Clinton’s impeachment proceedings.
“I’ve never seen anybody more talented at bringing people together around the table,
whether it was local, regional, state or national issues, and getting them to work
together,” McMillan says of LaHood.
LaHood was equally impressed with his staffer, a young lawyer involved in local party
politics, someone he called a “shining star.”
“He was in it for the right reasons,” LaHood says. “He cared a lot about good government
and he cared a lot about making sure the right people were elected to office and he
had very strong values.”
When he was searching for a chief of staff, the first person he thought of was McMillan,
with his reputation for hard work, honesty and integrity along with a bipartisan approach
to problem-solving and an interest in mentoring. LaHood was also impressed that McMillan
was willing to close his law practice to join his office.
“He was willing to leave his profession to get knee-deep into public service,” LaHood
says, seeing that same drive in McMillan’s quest to create the Institute for Principled
Leadership. “It is our responsibility to mentor people … and do it in a way that reflects
the idea that we’re not going to have these jobs forever. Part of our responsibility
is to make sure we have good people to follow, and Brad is certainly one of those
LaHood’s own reputation for bipartisanship secured him a place in President Barack
Obama’s administration as the U.S. secretary of transportation.
“I was not at all surprised he chose Ray LaHood,” McMillan says, pointing to a photo
of Obama straightening LaHood’s tie. It’s signed by Obama, “Ray, you’re no longer
in the House. Straighten your tie!”
Putting country before politics
Bringing good government back is the bottom line for McMillan, who says voter apathy
is the number-one obstacle. “I know a great number of people have been so disillusioned
with what they’ve seen in our national and state politics that they’ve turned away
from being involved and that’s simply not the answer.”
A college campus is the perfect birthplace for engagement, he says, suggesting a university
should be a lighthouse for civic involvement. IWU Political Science Professor Tari
Renner agrees. Wesleyan requires civic involvement for political science majors and
offers opportunities for all students to get involved through the Action Research
Center, which coordinates research projects with community needs.
Renner has a personal commitment to public service. He was elected to three terms
as a member of the McLean County Board, was a Democratic nominee for the U.S. House
in 2004 and lost a Bloomington mayoral bid in 2009 by only 15 votes. For those who
think today’s politics are as ugly as they can get, he disagrees.
“The founding fathers couldn’t agree that the sky was blue,” Renner says. “They were
pretty nasty and vicious to each other and people don’t realize that. George Washington
pretty much refused to talk to Thomas Jefferson.”
McMillan talks policy with Kyle Ham, chief of staff to State Treasurer Dan Rutherford.
As for today’s decline in political civility, both Renner and McMillan partially blame
cable TV and radio shows where guests aren’t chosen for their balanced, thoughtful
views but rather for how loud they can shout over one another.
“They want people who will yell and scream at each other,” McMillan says. “They’re
just so biased in the way they present things and many times they’re very mean-spirited.
It doesn’t allow for people to come together to actually solve problems.”
As for the 2012 presidential election, both McMillan and Renner believe there will
be heightened passion from the parties, possibly comparable to 2008.
“It’s going to be ugly,” McMillan says. “But we can do a whole lot better.”
He believes that with the right presidential and congressional leadership, the tone
of national politics can be significantly improved. He went back to his 1984 experience
in Washington when Congressman Michel would return from a long day on the House floor
and invite staffers to go to Bullfeathers, a favorite Capitol Hill hangout. He’d invite
liberal Democrat and House Speaker “Tip” O’Neill and his staff.
“Here I was a 21-year-old guy walking into Bullfeathers with the Republican leader
and the Democratic leader of Congress. They would have a meal, share a few drinks
and there was a genuine friendship that was a part of the way they approached things.
Did they agree philosophically on every single issue? No, but they found a way to
The tone changed when Newt Gingrich became speaker of the House, he says.
“He chose to lead with a much harsher tone and heated rhetoric, throwing hand grenades
at the other side. When he eventually lost power and Nancy Pelosi became speaker,
it was payback time. I’m critical of both political parties in the leadership they’ve
chosen in recent years. They could choose leaders who put the best interests of the
country first before partisan politics, and we haven’t seen that for the last 15 or
Party politics is evident in the state legislature as well. McMillan, a governor appointee
to the Illinois Reform Commission, took on redistricting reform. Districts are drawn
by whichever party is in power, using voting history to create a political advantage.
When an attempt to work on a legislative constitutional amendment to change the “horribly
flawed” redistricting process failed, reform groups launched a citizens’ initiative
and McMillan chaired what became known as the Illinois Fair Map Amendment. They fell
short of the 282,000 signatures needed to get it on the ballot but the effort may
be launched again for 2012. Cleaning up the redistricting process is essential to
changing Illinois politics, he believes.
“We’re not going to get better government and better politics in Illinois until we
change the redistricting process. It’s purely political and it does not serve the
best interests of the people.”
When asked if he ever loses faith in the prospect of a major change for the better
in American politics, McMillan admits, “There are times when you get very discouraged.”
But he adds that over the past 20 years, he’s learned to be patient.
“I’ve learned that any significant change takes time. The most important consideration
is: Is it the right cause to invest time and energy into? Once you determine that
it’s the right cause, you just chip away at it and try and keep moving the ball forward
until eventually the change that you’re hoping for takes place.”
To read Brad McMillan's "Five Steps to End Political Gridlock in Washington, D.C.," click here.
To visit the Institute for Principled Leadership’s website, click here.