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For Cullerton, failure is not an option

Monday, Nov 24, 2008

* My weekly syndicated newspaper column takes a look at the new Senate leadership

The historical significance of last week’s votes to elect a new Senate President and a new Senate Republican Leader is difficult to overstate.

For starters, replacing both chamber leaders at once is an extreme Springfield rarity. According to Kent Redfield, one of the state’s leading political scientists, the last time this happened was 34 years ago.

Also, Sen. Christine Radogno (R-Lemont) became the first woman in all of Illinois history to lead a legislative party caucus.

The historical novelties, however, pale in comparison to the historical imperatives.

The state’s political process has just plain stopped functioning. Illinois’ unemployment rate is soaring, yet no job-creating capital construction bill can be passed. The state’s budget deficit is eye-popping, yet nobody is seriously talking to each other about a real solution. Hundreds of important bills have died because of a fight over administrative rules. Gridlock is too kind a word. It’s as if the government has developed a terminal case of toxic shock syndrome.

As you probably know by now, the Senate Democrats unanimously selected Sen. John Cullerton as the new Senate President last week.

Cullerton vowed to do his best to end the gridlock. He has a long personal and political relationship with House Speaker Michael Madigan and he lives just two blocks away from Gov. Rod Blagojevich.

His campaign for the presidency was a work of art. For instance, he raised almost a million dollars between early September and early November, which impressed just about everybody.

But it was his persistence, patience, evenhandedness and hard work which seemed to pay off the most. A Republican friend of Cullerton’s said he spoke with Cullerton on the phone the Sunday evening before the vote. Cullerton couldn’t talk long because he had just pulled up to Democratic Sen. Ira Silverstein’s house for a private meeting. That’s just one example of many to illustrate how much effort Cullerton put into this contest.

There were no threats of retribution from Cullerton, even when things got nasty.

Last Wednesday, one of Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s most favored black Chicago activists held a press conference with a few Champaign-area ministers to pressure Sen. Michael Frerichs (D-Champaign) to vote for Sen. James Clayborne for Senate President. But the specter of a Chicago-based Blagojevich ally traveling to Champaign to urge a local legislator to vote for an East St. Louis Senator who was privately backed by the horribly unpopular governor didn’t go over too well at the Statehouse.

“If that’s how Clayborne is campaigning for Senate President, how would he govern?” several Senate Democrats wondered.

Also last week, voters in the districts of four Cullerton supporters - Sens. Michael Frerichs, AJ Wilhelmi, Susan Garrett and Linda Holmes - were hit with robocalls. The negative robocalls, paid for by a downstate Teamsters local on Sen. Clayborne’s behalf, were made in direct retaliation for their support of Sen. Cullerton.

Sen. James Clayborne’s people claimed that all four had pledged to back Clayborne and had broken their word. That’s not how the four Democrats saw it, and tempers flared in the hours leading up to the president vote. Several Democrats demanded some sort of retribution against Clayborne, including withdrawing Cullerton’s offer of Senate Majority Leader. But Cullerton calmed the waters and made the offer anyway. Clayborne accepted.

The calm under pressure, the disavowal of the political retribution of the recent past and the willingness to bring opponents into the circle are all extremely positive signs. Cullerton said last week that his first priority is to unstick the capital construction bill and then move on to education funding. Both of those issues have taken a back seat to the politics of vindictiveness that have plagued the Statehouse for years.

The road will not be easy, of course. Cullerton remembers well how Speaker Madigan undercut Senate President Phil Rock back in the day, because Cullerton was in Madigan’s war room at the time.

Madigan prefers junior partners, as does the governor, but Cullerton’s mandate is to remake the Senate into an independent yet cooperative body. That means Cullerton must be an equal partner at the table. And the admirable skills which got him this new job will have to be stretched to the limit if he hopes to succeed.

Failure is not an option.

* Chris Wills at the AP also takes a gander

But it’s hard to see how a new Senate president can fundamentally change the picture in Springfield.

First, the governor is still the governor. […]

Second, the speaker is still the speaker. […]

Finally, the facts are still the facts.

This year’s budget is out of balance by $2 billion or more.

All true. But one thing he misses is that we will no longer get dragged into months-long overtime sessions for no good reason other than the fact that the Senate President wants to help the governor whack the House Speaker.

The governor might try to force meaningless and mean-spirited overtime sessions, but he won’t have any real support.

And here’s something else worth pondering: The Illinois constitution does not spell out who convenes a post-impeachment Senate trial. The Chief Justice of the Illinois Supreme Court presides, but the governor’s people have long claimed that they could prevent an actual convening as long as Emil Jones was running the Senate. That’s no longer true, of course. It’s still doubtful that an impeachment proceeding will begin soon, but that card is now certainly on the table.

They dynamics have completely changed.

* From the Tribune

Incoming Illinois Senate President John Cullerton said Sunday the Democrats who control state government should be embarrassed by the constant fighting between the legislature and Gov. Rod Blagojevich that has led to a Springfield stalemate.

“We have been embarrassed. We have embarrassed ourselves with all the fighting between the governor and the legislature and the speaker and the president of the Senate. That’s going to end,” […]

Cullerton was joined at the church by his chief rival for the post, Sen. James Clayborne of Belleville. Clayborne was appointed by Cullerton to the chief deputy post of Senate majority leader.

“We’re going to work together to get Illinois back to working. We’re going to provide the social services we need. We’re going to work on the educational funding. And most of all, we’re going to make sure we take care of the most vulnerable in our society in our seniors and our children,” Clayborne said.

* Things are not so touchy feely on the other side of the aisle. Paul Caprio, the Family PAC director who actively opposed Sen. Radogno’s campaign, had this to say last week…

Last night, the Illinois Senate Republican Caucus formally filed a divorce petition from millions of Illinois pro-life and pro-family voters and their own political base.

It will be a messy divorce.

By electing Christine Radogno, a pro-abortion, pro-homosexual rights Senator as their leader, Illinois Senate Republicans have placed themselves under the authority of someone who has been indentured to two of the most radical anti-family groups in Illinois: Personal-Pac, an abortion on demand organization and Equality Illinois, which promotes same sex marriage. Radogno has done the political bidding of these anti-family extremists throughout her political career.

* Related…

* SJ-R: Cullerton is person to limit state dysfunction

* Tree-huggers in the Illinois Senate leadership

* Editorial: State needs cooperation — not lone wolf governor

* Noland sees positive shift in legislature

* A threat to Frerichs?

* A warm welcome back

* Cross retains role as House GOP leader

* Legislative Leadership Changes in Term-limited States

- Posted by Rich Miller        

9 Comments
  1. - VanillaMan - Monday, Nov 24, 08 @ 9:18 am:

    What are these complainer’s priorities?

    What are the reasons for the hope supporters see?

    Nothing has been done, but everyone is still flapping their lips. Until one of these stooges lifts a shovel to clean up this mess, everyone needs to hold their tongue and their ego.

    Our boat has sunk to the level where the water is now up to our chins, yet no one is still willing to address the holes blown out of the hull and how to repair them. Even after we stop sinking, we still have billions to spend to mop up the messes created.

    So what are we now seeing? Some kind of ten year plan for Illinois economic recovery? Or twenty years?


  2. - wordslinger - Monday, Nov 24, 08 @ 9:18 am:

    In a strange way, the one on the hot seat now is Madigan.

    Blago, whether he knows it or not, is through one way or the other and really has nothing to lose. But Madigan certainly intends to be a player in the future. The dark economic clouds keep rolling in, and further gridlock could lead to a nasty anti-incumbent mood.

    If Cullerton believe a capital program is the first order of business, building veto-proof coalitions in each chamber are probably the way to go. Write in whatever protections you can to force the governor to act responsibly and hope for the best.


  3. - Bill - Monday, Nov 24, 08 @ 9:47 am:

    I really like Steans’ discharge and bill jacking rules. It is about time that we move away from the remnants of the Pate Philip dictatorship. We also need similar rules in the House. It is time to end one man rule in Illinois.


  4. - Levois - Monday, Nov 24, 08 @ 9:53 am:

    I was rooting for Clayborne because he was a downstater. Reading your column, maybe the state has dodged a bullet here.


  5. - Legaleagle - Monday, Nov 24, 08 @ 10:06 am:

    This guy Caprio demonstrates why the Illinois GOP has lost the young people, most women, immigrants, minorities, and moderates. He comes across as mean-spirited and intolerant and threatening people. The Senators chose their legislative leader;that’s all!


  6. - GA Watcher - Monday, Nov 24, 08 @ 10:37 am:

    You’ve written some good columns before, Rich, but this is one of your better ones. I also think the Speaker will want to see Senator Cullerton succeed as Senate President, much in the way he did Mayor Daley when he first took office in 1989. I’ll bet we’ll see some quick movement on a capital bill once the new General Assembly takes its seats in January. Watch for something to happen on education funding, too, but more toward the end of the session.


  7. - Captain America - Monday, Nov 24, 08 @ 11:01 am:

    Cullerton seems like a person who can bridge divides among various factions based upon his personality and savvy.

    I am confident the House and Senate leadership will work together better in terms of process. However, the hole that Pinocchio, Godfather, and Machiavelli have dug for us, as a result of the subordination of the public interest to their egos and political agendas, has become a canyon.

    Process will help some, but the State is out of money. Revenue shortfalls are likely to be much worse next fiscal year, and we’re already $4-5 billion down this year. Process can’t solve our fiscal problems, especially with a sociopathic Governor as a wildcard.

    Although culture wars are the least of the challenges confronting Illinois, the culturally conservative base appears to be the Achilles heel of the Republican Party. Hard-headed pragmatism is what we need instead of ideology to get thoprugh this national/regional/local economic/fiscal crisis.

    Good Luck to Cullerton, Radagno and us all - because we’re all going to need leadership, as well as luck, to weather the gathering storm!


  8. - Captain Flume - Monday, Nov 24, 08 @ 1:26 pm:

    I agree with Bill and others about Steans’ proposed rules changes, and would like to see similar or better in the House. For Democrats, the current rules aanything but democratic, and all Illinois citizens suffeer for that lack of true representative government.


  9. - VanillaMan - Monday, Nov 24, 08 @ 2:32 pm:

    ==For Cullerton, failure is not an option==

    Frankly Rich, at this point failure is better than what they’re doing now. I wouldn’t want to see either Radogno or Cullerton concerned about failing to the point where they continue to let Illinois slide.

    It is hard to imagine the situation getting worse.


Sorry, comments for this post are now closed.


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