New leader for House Republicans
Still facing the same problems, Illinois House Republicans play follow the leader.
It's a little bit like re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. Nonetheless, members of the S.S. Illinois House GOP chose well last week when they elected a new leader to replace state Rep. Tom Cross, the Oswego Republican who is stepping down from his leadership post to run for state treasurer.
State House Republicans unanimously elected state Rep. Jim Durkin of Western Springs as the leader of minority Republicans. Springfield state Rep. Raymond Poe also sought the post but dropped out of the race to endorse Durkin after it became clear that Durkin had the necessary votes to win. Poe's decision to nominate Durkin at the party's caucus meeting is helpful in terms of uniting all 47 House Republicans behind their new leader.
Durkin, a former prosecutor, thoughtful legislator and one of the more impressive elected officials in Illinois, appears to be a fine choice. Whether he actually turns out to be an effective leader depends on how well he manages his caucus, whether he's able to enunciate and defend Republican positions in a way that the public finds persuasive and if he's able to establish a respectful, but strong, relationship with Democrats, especially House Speaker Michael Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton.
No one, however, should expect miracles, and for obvious reasons.
Republicans are a non-factor in state politics. They hold two relatively unimportant state offices — comptroller and treasurer — but otherwise have no control of public policy in Illinois.
Democrats control the governor's office and both the state House and state Senate by super-majorities.
The House GOP can affect policy only by the judicious use of its 47 votes when Democrats are divided or by effectively presenting their alternative proposals to the voters.
That reality will not change unless the GOP can increase its numbers in both the House and Senate in future elections, a tough challenge given the effectiveness with which Madigan and Cullerton have gerrymandered legislative maps to keep Democrats in the majority through 2022.
So while it's not hopeless, it will be extremely difficult for legislative Republicans to become politically relevant. That's one big reason former House Republican Leader Cross opted for the opportunity to run for treasurer. That campaign won't be any picnic either, but Cross obviously considers it a more attractive option than continuing to beat his head against the wall in the House.
Although Durkin was clearly the best choice for the House GOP, his selection cements another political reality.
Just as legislative Republicans have no influence, neither does downstate Illinois, defined as the entire state outside the Chicagoland area. It's not that Chicago-area public officials, either Democrats or Republicans, are hostile to downstate; they just don't care, and they don't have to care.
Every statewide elected official, save state Treasurer Dan Rutherford, hails from the Chicago area. Now all four legislative leaders — Madigan, Cullerton, Durkin and Republican state Sen. Christine Radogno — come from the Chicagoland area.
The best downstaters can hope to achieve in terms of winning state budget resources is accepting a few scraps thrown from the table, and they will be mighty few, given the calamitous nature of Illinois' finances.
Those who prefer a glass half-full approach may find that prescription excessively pessimistic, both as it relates to the Republican Party and downstate Illinois. Well, we'll find out. The future isn't cast in stone, and effective leadership can work wonders to alter the current dire course Illinois is on.
It's our hope that Durkin can join with the Democratic leadership of Illinois to help chart a path to recovery.