August 25, 2004


When politicians in Springfield refer to the "Four Tops," they're not describing the famous singing group.

That's the moniker by which the state's four most powerful legislators -- House Speaker Mike Madigan, House Minority Leader Tom Cross, Senate President Emil Jones and Senate Minority Leader Frank Watson -- are known. There are 177 state legislators, but the four leaders control their respective contingents with an iron fist, and it was with them that Governor Rod Blagojevich negotiated during the General Assembly's recent 50-day overtime session.

The reason for their draconian dominance is summed up in four words: "campaign cash" and "political cover." Lobbyists and special interests give money to their campaign committees, expecting that the "Top" will deliver all of his members' votes on key issues. The members, by supporting their "Top," get the needed campaign cash to get re-elected, and the "Tops," by controlling the legislative agenda, make sure that controversial matters are killed in committee, so that incumbents need not vote on them and suffer electoral repercussions.

The June 30 financial reports disclosed that Madigan had $1 million in the House campaign account and $1.29 in the Democratic Party of Illinois account. Madigan doubles as the Democratic state chairman. Jones had $1.8 million, Cross $1.16 million and Watson just over $1 million.

And, as the adjoining vote chart indicates, almost every 2004 roll call was uncontroversial. That's why, when the "Tops" agree, the deal is done, and the other 173 legislators invariably vote as they're told.

Throughout most of the 1990s, Springfield had two "Tops" and two "Irrelevancies." Both Jones, then the Senate Democratic minority leader, and Lee Daniels, the House Republican minority leader, were largely ignored, and deals were cut by the Republican governor (first Jim Edgar and later George Ryan) with Madigan and Republican Senate President Pate Philip.

The Republicans had a Senate majority from 1992 to 2002, and the Democrats controlled the House for 8 of those years. However, a new post-2000 legislative map could not be agreed upon due to the divided legislature, so the matter went to a special commission and a lottery awarded the tie-breaking vote to the Democrats. The new legislative boundaries were drawn to ensure a Democratic dominance, and in 2002 Madigan got a 66-52 majority (up from 62-56 after the 2000 election), and Jones got a 33-26 majority (way up from the Democrats' 27-32 minority after the 2000 election).

But Jones' recent experience with "Topdom" has not covered him with glory. He bungled the protracted budget negotiations, too quickly allying himself with Blagojevich, and his Senate passed spending bills appropriating far more than Madigan's House. Jones had lived in Madigan's shadow for the past decade, and his ire was apparent: He lambasted Madigan for forsaking "Democratic principles" and suggested that Madigan attend the Republican presidential convention.

By embracing Blagojevich, Jones painted himself into a corner. Instead of demanding that the governor adopt the Senate's "Democratic principles" budget, Jones enthusiastically backed the governor's position. When Blagojevich and the other three "Tops" finally cut a budget deal, Jones had no choice but to go along or look like an utter fool.

As a result, there was much grumbling among the Senate's other 32 Democrats, many of whom suffered through a decade of irrelevanc. "A number of (Democratic) senators would like to see Emil gone," said one area senator. "But the problem is that there's no plausible replacement."

The Senate's 33 Democrats are a diverse and fractious bunch. There are nine blacks, including Jones, all but one from Chicago (the ninth being from Downstate Belleville), and there are four Hispanics, all from Chicago. The blacks and Hispanics are more rivals than allies. There are seven suburbanites, from Cook and Lake counties, of whom four are strong liberals. There are three white liberals from Chicago, two representing Lakefront districts and one from the West Rogers Park-Skokie-Lincolnwood district. There are two white ethnics, one each from the Northwest and Southwest sides. Finally, there are nine Downstaters, eight of whom are white and most of whom are conservative on social issues such as abortion, gun control and gay rights.

The most influential Downstate senator, Vince Demuzio, who had served since 1974, recently died and was succeeded by his widow. The perceived heir apparent to Jones, age 68, who has served in the Senate since 1982, was Barack Obama, but Obama is likely to win Illinois' U.S. Senate seat in November. So black senators Rickey Hendon (an assistant majority leader) and Donne Trotter, both of Chicago, and James Clayborne, of Belleville, are rivals to replacement Jones.

But other senators aspire to the Senate presidency: Miguel del Valle, an assistant majority leader from Chicago, is the senior Hispanic senator. Pat Welch, an assistant majority leader from Peru, first elected in 1982, is the senior Downstater. Two white Chicagoans, Jim DeLeo, an assistant majority leader from the Northwest Side, first elected in 1992, and Lakefronter John Cullerton, appointed in 1991 and re-elected since, also are in the mix.

Only two Democratic seats are vulnerable in 2004, both Downstate: Gary Forby (D-59) and John Sullivan (D-47). In all likelihood, the Democrats will retain their Senate majority through the end of the decade. Jones' term expires in 2004, and he is a cinch to win re-election to another 4-year term. He will surely keep the Senate presidency during 2005-06.

But unless Jones enhances his performance, he may eventually find himself dumped by his peers. Jones' most logical successor is Clayborne, who would get backing from Downstate whites but not from Chicago blacks. Hendon and Trotter would not get backing from Downstaters or Chicago or suburban whites, nor would del Valle. DeLeo would be adamantly opposed by blacks, Hispanics and liberal whites.

So, according to Springfield insiders, Jones' successor, in 2007 or 2009, will be the senator who is everybody's second or third choice, which narrows it down to two white liberals from Chicago: Cullerton, age 55, chairman of the Judiciary Committee; and Ira Silverstein, of West Rogers Park, age 43, chairman of the Executive Committee. Phil Rock, a white Democrat from Oak Park, was the Senate president from 1979 to 1992. The mere fact that blacks hold nine of 33 seats does not necessarily insure that a black will continue to be the Senate president.

The senators in the attached vote chart include area incumbents Silverstein (D-8), Cullerton (D-6), DeLeo (D-10), del Valle (D-2) and Iris Martinez (D-20), all of Chicago, as well as Dave Sullivan (R-33) of Park Ridge and Jeff Schoenberg (D-9) of Evanston. Except for the gun card age reduction, medical malpractice reform and ephedrine control, they voted alike on every issue -- most of which were distinctly uncontroversial.