Jim Dey: State House, Senate contests really up to maps

Jim Dey: State House, Senate contests really up to maps

When a Cook County judge struck from the ballot a proposed constitutional amendment mandating a non-partisan process for drawing the state's legislative map, she reinforced a sclerotic status quo that leaves most voters little choice in electing state legislators.

After Circuit Judge Mary Mikva's ruling in June, Yes for Independent Maps promised to try again in two years to draft a proposal that would pass legal muster. The Chicago-based group wants to strip incumbent state legislators of the power to draw their own districts and give that authority to a bipartisan commission.

Whether it succeeds is an issue for another day. In the meantime, the effect of gerrymandered House and Senate districts drawn to favor one party or the other is clear — the results of the Nov. 4 election are mostly pre-determined.

Of the 137 House and Senate seats up for election, less than 20 could go either way.

One-third of the Illinois Senate — 19 of 58 seats — is up for election. They include 12 Democratic-held seats and seven occupied by Republicans. But only one of seven Republican-held seats — Kirk Dillard's vacated suburban one — features a Democratic challenger. Six of the 12 Democratic-held seats are being challenged by Republicans.

Of the 118 House seats up for election, only 50 are contested. But the pickin's are even slimmer than that.

State Rep. Jim Durkin of Western Springs, leader of the minority Republicans in the Illinois House, estimated that "there are no more than 12 (Republican and Democratic seats) that are truly in play."

Those pitiful numbers reflect the power of the permanent majority that can be gained through the authority to gerrymander legislative districts.

Democrats have controlled all of state government since 2002, and Senate President John Cullerton and House Speaker Michael Madigan, both Chicago Democrats, have leveraged their map-drawing authority to build veto-proof majorities.

Democrats hold a 71-47 majority over the Republicans in the House and a 40-19 majority in the Senate. They will continue to hold overwhelming majorities after the November election, the only real question being whether they will retain their veto-proof majorities.

Obviously, they hope to do so. But Durkin said if Republicans can upend the Democrats' veto-proof majority in either body and elect Republican Bruce Rauner governor, it will be a whole new ballgame.

"The world will change in Springfield if we can break that," he said.

Everything, of course, depends on Republicans taking the governor's office. If Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn wins re-election, legislative Republicans will remain non-entities.

If Rauner wins and Democrats retain their veto-proof majority, Cullerton and Madigan can use their vast numbers to implement their own policy preferences by overriding Rauner vetoes.

If Republicans increase their numbers enough in either chamber to sustain Rauner vetoes, they will have to be taken seriously at the bargaining table by the Democrats.

Here's how the numbers currently break down:

— If Democrats lose just one of their 71 seats in the House, they forfeit their veto-proof majority.

— If Democrats lose five of their 40 seats in the Senate — a long shot at best — they forfeit their veto-proof majority.

Republicans initially targeted Democratic seats held by state Sens. Mike Jacobs of Moline and Andy Manar of Bunker Hill.

Jacobs, whose father held the seat before him, is the more vulnerable of the two because of a series of mistakes he's made that include sponsoring utility legislation promoted by his now-lobbyist dad.

Manar, a former staffer for Cullerton, is far more astute from a policy standpoint and has drawn considerable positive attention for his efforts to revise the state's school-aid formula.

If Republicans get really ambitious, they could go after state Sens. Terry Link of Vernon Hills, James Clayborn of Belleville and Bill Cunningham of Chicago.

Obviously, the easier nut for the GOP to crack is the House. But Democrats have opportunities to pad their lead even further because 10 GOP incumbents are stepping down. Democrats have their eyes on at least three Republican seats, including those being vacated by state Reps. Mike Bost of Carbondale, Dennis Reboletti of Elhurst and Tom Cross of Oswego.

Top-tier Republican targets are state Reps. Sam Yingling of Hainesville, Mike Smiddy of Hinsdale and Katherine Cloonen of Kankakee. Cloonen is being challenged by Glenn Nixon, a Bourbonnais police officer who lost to Cloonen in 2012 by less than 100 votes.

Locally, Republicans have identified the Champaign-Urbana House seat being vacated by state Rep. Naomi Jakobsson and the Decatur seat held by state Rep. Sue Scherer as possible pickups.

Both parties can shrink or expand their target list depending on what happens between now and the end of October. Either way, real voter choice will remain rare as a consequence of legislative gerrymandering that removes competition from the concept of competitive elections.

Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached at jdey@news-gazette.com or 351-5369.

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