August 20, 2003


Democrats in the Illinois Senate, while fitfully languishing in the throes of being an irrelevant minority for a decade (from 1993 to 2002), in a body dominated by the much-reviled (by Democrats) Pate Philip and his conservative Republicans, were a very disgruntled bunch.

They dreamt of the day when they would regain a Senate majority, which they had held from 1975 to 1992. They dreamt of the day when Democrats would dominate Illinois government, controlling the House, the Senate and the governorship, which had last occurred in 1975-76. They dreamt of the day when they could pay back the Republicans and make them as powerless as the Senate Democrats were for a decade.

And, most importantly, they dreamt of the day when a veritable political paradise would dawn, with Democrats lavishing oodles of state dollars on their various constituencies: Lots of spending on road-building and capital development to keep organized labor happy. Lots of money on education to keep the teachers' lobby happy. Lots of funding for state jobs to keep Democratic county chairmen and politicians happy and to award state patronage to "deserving" Democrats. And, lastly, lavish funding for all the programs advocated by those liberal, pro-Democrat groups and special interests that had suffered through 26 years of Republican gubernatorial control.

In short, when the Democrats' dream was realized, when they won total dominance of Illinois government in the 2002 election, "Paradise Lost" for 26 years was supposed to be transformed into "Paradise Found."

But, to the consternation of hungry and ambitious Democrats throughout Illinois, their dream, to use a current phrase, ain't happening. Governor Rod Blagojevich's unconventional but generally frugal fiscal policies, which are geared more toward electing him president in 2008 than to helping Illinois Democrats, coupled a slow economy, has made the Democrats' projected "Paradise Found" an impossibility for the foreseeable future.

That makes a lot of Springfield Democrats very disconsolate. Instead of a 2004 budget larded with pork and new spending, Blagojevich addressed a $5 billion revenue shortfall. While Blagojevich's "creative" financing enabled him to spend an additional $400 million on public schools, he still cut spending for prisons, higher education and the state payroll in order to balance the budget. Next year likely will be worse, with more cuts needed.

The political irony here is that the Democrats' control of the General Assembly -- a 32-27 majority in the Senate and a 66-52 majority in the House -- is defeat-proof. The Democratic-designed remap of the state's legislative districts, which was picked by a lottery, virtually guarantees Democratic control of both chambers for the next decade, even if there is a state income tax hike. So Blagojevich, if he wanted to, could raise taxes and hike spending, and Democrats could support that and not suffer at the polls. But Blagojevich wants to be president, so a tax hike will not happen any time soon.

As set forth in the adjoining vote chart, the Northwest Side's Democrats are an ethnically diverse but politically cohesive lot. Those Democrats -- Ira Silverstein (D-8), Jim DeLeo (D-10), John Cullerton (D-6), Miguel del Valle (D-2) and Iris Martinez (D-20) -- voted alike on every issue except the SBC rate hike for phone carriers, which Silverstein voted against, and on the state ethics bill, on which Cullerton voted present. Also included in the chart is Republican Dave Sullivan (R-33), from the Park Ridge-Des Plaines-Arlington Heights area; he voted with the Republican minority on most issues, which means he diverged from the Democrats on about a third of all roll-call votes.

Under the Illinois Constitution, the 118 state representatives are elected for 2-year terms, but the 59 state senators, over the decade following each remap, have staggered terms: one-third have a 2-4-4 sequence, meaning that they must seek re-election in 2004, 2008 and 2012; one-third have 4-2-4, which means running in 2006, 2008 and 2012; and one third have 4-4-2, which means running in 2006, 2010 and 2012.

Silverstein, del Valle and Martinez have the 2-4-4 sequence, which means they must first run in 2004. DeLeo has the 4-4-2, and Sullivan and Cullerton have the 4-2-4, which means that they must first run in 2006.

Here's the early outlook for each senator:

Silverstein, age 42, was first nominated in an upset in the 1998 Democratic primary over 39th Ward Committeeman Randy Barnette to replace the retiring 26-year incumbent, Howie Carroll, who was running for Congress. A huge turnout in the east end of the district, among predominantly Jewish voters, ensured Jan Schakowsky's victory over Carroll in the congressional contest -- and also gave Silverstein an 844-vote win over Barnette. Silverstein has since entrenched himself in his 8th District, which encompasses West Rogers Park (50th Ward), where he resides, plus the Northwest Side (39th and 40th wards) and south Skokie and Lincolnwood. Silverstein was unopposed in the 2002 primary.

Silverstein is chairman of the Senate Executive Committee, which passed the Blagojevich bond bill. Barnette did not oppose him in the 2002 primary, and he will not do so in 2004. Silverstein was elected easily in 1998, and he was re-elected in 2002 with 69.3 percent of the vote over Republican Joe Hedrick. He split from his party's majority on the SBC vote, but otherwise he has been a loyal cog in the Springfield Democratic machine. He will win another term in 2004.

DeLeo, age 52, was first elected to the Senate in 1992, and he now is an assistant majority leader. Each legislator is paid $57,619 annually, and those in the leadership, like DeLeo, and all committee chairmen, like Silverstein, are paid an extra $12,000. DeLeo's old district was merged with that of Republican Wally Dudycz in 2002, and Dudycz retired. DeLeo was elected unopposed in 2002, and he is up for re-election in 2006. He is quite safe.

Cullerton, age 54, first elected in 1990, and Sullivan, age 38, first appointed in 1998 and elected in 2000 and 2002, are up in 2006. Each should win re-election.

Del Valle, age 52, is a longtime adversary of U.S. Representative Luis Gutierrez (D-4). He was first elected to the Senate in 1986, and he is the chairman of the Senate Education Committee, as well as an assistant majority leader. Both he and Martinez, who won a 2002 primary over then-alderman Mike Wojcik, are up for re-election in 2004. Del Valle covets Gutierrez's congressional seat, and Gutierrez has backed candidates who have failed to beat him in a primary; del Valle will stay in the legislature until the 4th U.S. House District seat opens. Both del Valle and Martinez will win easily in 2006 in their Hispanic-majority districts.