December 17, 2008
Insiders still own Illinois' Senate seatBy Douglas O'Brien
At first it seemed that the outrageous acts of Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich had resulted in an epiphany of transparency among some of the most reflexive stalwarts of the state's Democratic junta.
Close on the heels of the Governor's arrest for, in part, trying to sell the President-elect's Senate seat, the state's senior Senator, Dick Durbin called loudly for a special election to be held to fill the position. Soon, Lieutenant Governor Pat Quinn, and Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky joined the chorus. State House Speaker Michael Madigan called for a special session of the legislature to change the state's law that allowed the Governor to fill a Senate vacancy and give the decision to the voters. Even Barack Obama chimed in, saying he thought the people should decide the fate of his former position. Democrats were falling over each other to present themselves as champions of openness and advocates for the people.
The Chicago Tribune and Sun-Times editorialized that a special election was the best option for filling the vacancy in light of the crippling effects of the scandal and the public's desire to break from the culture of sleeze in Illinois politics.
But a funny thing happened on the way to empowerment of the people. Democrats realized that a special election would create a remote possibility that a non-Democrat could win the seat. It dawned on them that the voters seemed really miffed about all this third-world-style corruption and that they could prefer a senator who was not a product of their machine.
They then heard rumblings that suburban Congressman Mark Kirk, a moderate who was just elected to his fifth term in the House was seriously considering a run in the special election. Kirk has fought off several multi-million dollar challenges from the national Democrats, holding a district that voted overwhelmingly for Al Gore, John Kerry and Barack Obama. The naval intelligence officer, know for his smarts, clean image and fundraising prowess, was just the kind of candidate who could take advantage of the situation.
Add to the presence of at least one formidable GOP candidate the likelihood of a brutal Democratic primary and the politicians began trying to cram the genie back in the bottle.
African American politicians cried that a special election was a backdoor attempt to steal the seat from their community since it would be very hard for any of the prospective black candidates to win. Democrat lawyers started opining that a special election would be unconstitutional. Others began caterwauling about the price tag for holding the election, even though the special could be held in tandem with the municipal and local elections being held across the state in the spring and greatly reduce the costs.
While there are valid questions about and arguments against a special election, (former Republican Governor Jim Edgar has publicly said it is a bad idea) it soon became clear that politics were driving an about face by Democratic leaders.
Democrats also realized their potential candidates had some problems. Representative Jesse Jackson, Jr. spent much of the week tap dancing around allegations his camp tried to buy him the seat. Representative Danny Davis also had to dodge questions about how openly he had been lobbying the Governor for the appointment, appearing with Blagojevich at several events and praising him effusively. And Representative Schakowsky admitted lobbying the Governor as well, which added to her problems dealing with the fact that her political operative husband just recently got out of prison for financial crimes while heading up a non-profit advocacy group.
Still, a Rasmussen poll conducted late last week showed that 66% of Illinoisians favored a special election, with only 21% against. GateHouse News Service polled state legislators (both houses are firmly under Democrat control) and found 67% in support of holding an election.
Quinn, the Lieutenant Governor who would take over if Blagojevich resigns or is kicked out of office began to change his tune, saying he wanted to appoint a new senator once he got into office or at least appoint a temporary replacement who would then have a leg up if a special election were held. Others followed suit, reneging on, or modifying their support for a special election.
Seeing the tide begin to turn, the Illinois Republican Party tried to keep the pressure on the Democrats by running television ads reminding everyone of the original calls for a special election and the furious backtracking going on now.
And the state Democrats did not disappoint. When the special session of the legislature convened Speaker Madigan (who is chairman of the state Democratic Party and father of Attorney General Lisa Madigan whose gubernatorial ambitions are no secret) neglected to call the special election bill which had been the original purpose of the session. Democrats in the state senate are also refusing to call a similar bill in that chamber.
At first the state's Democrats showed that they were all too eager to dive head first into the deep end of open government as they scrambled to distance themselves from their disgraced leader. But they ignored both the practical and political realities.
Practicalities are rarely of major concern to politicians of any stripe, but when the Democrats realized that they had jeopardized political strength in their callous attempt to avoid the fallout of scandal, they immediately hid behind these minor technical concerns as an excuse to deny the people a voice in the process and keep power in the hands of the political class that has created this crisis to begin with. This scandal may have serious long-term impacts on Illinois Democrats and even the new administration. But for the time being, the loss of a senate seat does not appear to be a possible consequence.
Douglas O'Brien is a public affairs consultant who lives in Chicago.