The best solution to the problems making appointments to empty Illinois House and Senate seats is to do as few as possible.
State Rep. Luis Arroyo didn’t want to leave the Illinois House of Representatives, but he was forced to resign after he was indicted for bribery.
Senate President John Cullerton does want to leave. That’s why he recently announced that he’ll resign his Chicago state Senate seat in January. Elected in 2018 to a four-year term, he’s leaving with three years left on a term not set to expire until 2023.
Both departures have created the same problem — when legislators decide to leave early, their replacements are appointed by the leaders of whichever political party they represent in the General Assembly.
Appointed elected officials? That’s about the size of it.
Gov. J.B. Pritzker last week expressed concerns about that distasteful set of circumstances. Portraying himself as favoring all things good, he suggested there’s a problem with the status quo.
“I want to make sure that the people of the district get represented properly. There’s no air of corruption around the person who gets appointed,” he said.
Pritzker’s words are motivated, at least in part, by timing. Elected and appointed officials at Chicago, Cook County and the General Assembly are facing a series of federal corruption investigations that already have claimed three legislators and seem certain to implicate others both elected and appointed, all of whom are connected.
At the same time, House Speaker Michael Madigan is in the middle of a political struggle with politicians in Chicago’s 36th Ward over the appointment of Arroyo’s successor.
As the Democratic Party’s ward committeeman in the 36th Ward, Arroyo held enough votes to choose his successor. Seeking to block that move, Madigan publicly warned that if Arroyo or Arroyo’s political associates in the 36th Ward participated in the appointment of Arroyo’s successor that he would see that appointee’s qualifications are challenged — and presumably rejected — by the House.
Arroyo & Co. defied Madigan, naming veteran politico Eva-Dina Delgado to Arroyo’s old 3rd District House seat. How that appointment works out in the face of Madigan’s warning remains to be seen.
At the same time, a number of prominent Democrats are vying to succeed Cullerton, both as president of the Senate and as the senator from Illinois’ 6th District.
While Pritzker’s complaints about the appointment process have merit, it’s far from clear what’s to be done about it.
One possibility is to conduct a special election to fill a vacancy, as is done when members of the U.S. House of Representatives step down. The obvious problem, however, is that special elections routinely are low-turnout elections that are expensive for the local governments that conduct them. So that’s less than an ideal option.
If Pritzker wants to change the appointment process, it’s reasonable to ask how he wants to change it. An appointment is an appointment, no matter who makes it or how. That’s inherently political, and in Illinois it means decisions are made to meet political concerns, not necessarily the public interest.
The best solution is to avoid these situations altogether.
Given his serious problems with the law, exits like Arroyo’s are impossible to avoid. They’re just a fact of life in Illinois.
But the problem created by Cullerton’s voluntary decision to leave is more easily addressed.
It was incredibly selfish of him to run for re-election to a four-year term when he almost surely knew that he had no intention of serving the full term he asked voters to approve. He could have delayed his departure for another year to allow his replacement to be elected next November.
By his own admission, Cullerton has been fending off his wife’s requests that he leave the legislature. He even joked that while he’s president of the Illinois Senate, she’s the Speaker of his house.
So why did he pull this bait and switch?
It’s simple arrogance. He did it because he could. Who, after all, is going to stop him? So what if a few people who don’t matter grumble?
Cullerton also can be expected, whether he admits it publicly or not, to have something to say about who succeeds him in office.
On the scale of Illinois problems, this is not a big one. But it demonstrates how the electoral system can be gamed for the benefit of those who run it to the exclusion of the interests of the taxpayers it purports to serve.