Jim Dey: No room for public in political maneuvering

Election Day — Nov. 6 this year — is a day heralded as one when the people pick their leaders, the sainted occasion when they either throw the rascals out or reward effective stewards of the public's trust with another term in office.

It sounds good, and it's true to a large extent.

But it's also not true in some major respects, mostly in federal and state legislative races where, through the manipulations of district boundary lines, the elected officials pick their constituents, not the other way around.

That's particularly so this year in the races for the Illinois House and Senate. The results were foreordained months ago. The numbers show that the fix is mostly in.

Nobody will be stealing votes. That's so yesterday, even in Illinois.

Here the legislative races were fixed this time by Democrats, and they drew the maps to give themselves control of the Legislature for the next 10 years.

If you doubt it, chew on these numbers. There are 177 legislative elections scheduled for Nov. 6 — 59 in the Illinois Senate and 118 in the Illinois House.

Of the 59 Senate seats, 30 are uncontested. Eighteen Democrats and 12 Republicans have no opposition.

Of the 118 House seats, 69 are uncontested. Thirty-nine Democrats and 30 Republicans have no opposition.

More than half the races — 56 percent to be exact — are uncontested. To those candidates, Election Day is a mere formality.

But it's even worse than that. Many candidates who are running face only token opposition. One local example is state Rep. Naomi Jakobsson, who is running in a House district that was so heavily drawn to favor Democrats that it borders on the unimaginable that she could lose.

Another is the race featuring Republican state Rep. Chad Hays of Catlin. He is heavily favored over Urbana Democrat Michael Langendorf.

There are districts like that all over Illinois.

In fact, based on interviews with Republican and Democratic political operatives, it's fair to say that just 13 to 16 of the 59 Senate seats and roughly 20 of the 118 House seats offer voters competitive choices.

Gerrymandering — drawing legislative district lines to give one party or the other an advantage — has a long and dishonorable history in our state and nation. Some states, including Iowa, have done something about it, establishing nonpartisan commissions to draw apolitical maps aimed at encouraging competition. But Illinois has steadfastly refused.

Last year, the League of Women Voters tried but failed to collect enough signatures to put on the ballot a proposed constitutional amendment calling for a bipartisan map-drawing process. But they started late and collected just a fraction of the roughly 300,000 signatures they needed.

Now another group, CHANGE Illinois, is considering organizing a similar petition drive aimed at putting a "Fair Map" constitutional amendment on the 2014 general election ballot.

"Our organization has this as a top priority to consider," said Peter Bensinger, vice chairman of CHANGE Illinois, a public advocacy group that has 2.5 million members and represents 80 different organizations.

Bensinger said that "we have got to remove the blatant politics from Illinois government" and one way to do that is to ensure competitive legislative elections in which voters have a real choice.

He said under current circumstances legislators become so reliant on party leaders for support in terms of favorable maps and money that they forget where they come from.

"The way redistricting is done and the way the money is run tells the legislators that they don't have to worry about their districts," Bensinger said.

"The decisions comes from Springfield."

In Illinois, Democrats have an iron grip on the House and Senate.

In the House, Democrats currently hold a 64-54 majority. In the Senate, Democrats hold a 35-24 margin.

Both Senate President John Cullerton and House Speaker Michael Madigan would love to win a three-fifths supermajority so they could shut Republicans completely out of the legislative process.

Cullerton needs to pick up just one Senate seat to get his three-fifths majority while Madigan needs to pick up seven seats to get his.

Kevin Artl, the political director for House Republicans, is trying to keep Madigan from being successful. He identified 20 House seats that are competitive in the state, but only a couple in central Illinois.

He said they include the open 79th District seat where Democrat Katherine Cloonen of Kankakee is running against Republican Glenn Nixon of Bourbonnais. Another is in the 96th District, where Democrat Sue Scherer of Decatur is running against Republican Dennis Shackleford of Rochester.

That 96th race should be an easy Democratic win, but Scherer, a teacher backed by Madigan but remote from the public, has proved to be such a terrible candidate that the GOP is considering making a run at her.

"The voters really aren't embracing (her) message. We're putting some resources in there," said Artl.

Steve Brown, a spokesman for Madigan, said he agree with Artl's estimate of 20 competitive races in the Illinois House.

"That would be about the estimate I would offer," he said.

Brown said the targeted races are all over Illinois, but he declined to go into detail.

"Sharing our strategy with the news media is not always the most productive thing to do," he said.

As for the Illinois Senate, GOP operative Ryan Cudney estimated 16 of the 59 races are competitive. He said the GOP has identified seven vulnerable Democratic incumbents, is trying to protect four beatable Republican incumbents and sees five open seats as possibilities.

Cudney's best-case scenario for the outcome is that the Republicans would pick up four seats, still leaving them in a 31-28 Senate minority.

The only local race he included in that list features Champaign Democratic state Sen. Mike Frerichs, who faces Republican John Bambenek. Frerichs is the favored candidate, but Cudney said Bambenek "is running a robust grass-roots campaign."

Over on the Democratic side, Rikeesha Phelon, a spokeswoman for Cullerton, said her boss "wants to see a Democratic super-majority." Her estimate of 13 contested Senate races was close to that of her Republican counterpart. Among contested races she cited is an open seat in the 48th Senate District, where Democrat Andy Manar of Bunker Hill and Republican Mike McElroy of Decatur are running.

Both Democrats and Republicans have set their goals for Election Day, and that's fitting because this year's state legislative races are all about the parties and their candidates, leaving very little choice for the people who theoretically elect them.

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

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sacrophyte wrote on October 15, 2012 at 12:10 pm

Mr. Dey,

 

It would oh-so-helpful if you could describe, in your opinion of course, what the public can do.

 

Over and above your individual thoughts, I would love to see the NG organize its own set of stories and/or grass-roots efforts to affect change in a system that is clearly not serving the public (according this the point of view offered in this peice).

 

-- charles schultz