September 17, 2008


"Once black, it never goes back." That's the insistent mantra and the continuing expectation of the black community and of black Democratic politicians regarding the occupancy of certain Chicago and Cook County public offices.

In other words, if a black politician occupies an office, a black politician will occupy it forever. They "own" it, and any attempt by white or Hispanic politicians to retake the job is deemed to be evidence of "racism."

Blacks now claim "ownership" of the following offices: Cook County Board president, held by Todd Stroger, clerk of the Circuit Court, held by Dorothy Brown, Cook County recorder of deeds, held by Gene Moore, and city treasurer, held by Stephanie Neely. Any attempt to dump or defeat those black incumbents will evoke a surge of anger, and since black voters make up almost 40 percent of the Democratic primary electorate in Chicago and Cook County, few white politicians will dare oppose them.

However, when it comes to next January's election to replace retiring Illinois Senate President Emil Jones, there are no racial preferences, set-asides or minority hiring, nor any affirmative action.

Jones is unquestionably the most powerful African American in state government, and he is a stalwart supporter of Governor Rod Blagojevich. Jones has been the Senate president since 2003, and he was Democratic minority leader from 1993 to 2002 -- enough time for black politicians to think they now "own" the Senate's Democratic leadership post. But while Jones can hand off his Senate seat to his son, Emil Jones III, he can't guarantee that he will be succeeded as president by another black politician.

Democrats hold a veto-proof 37-22 majority in the chamber, and they are likely to retain that margin. Jones' successor must corral the votes of 19 Democratic state senators. Nine senators are black, and two black senators, Rickey Hendon (D-5) of Chicago and James Clayborne (D-57) of East Saint Louis, are battling for the backing of the Black Caucus. Hence, the odds of a white Senate president have grown from possible to likely.

Jones, a longtime rival of Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan, has made the Senate a bulwark of support for the governor. With Jones gone, that will change. "It's a new day dawning," predicted state Senator Dan Kotowski (D-33) of Park Ridge. "We (the Senate) will be the reformers in state government. The petty bickering and posturing will cease."

Of Jones' possible replacements, only Hendon is vociferously pro-Blagojevich. The 2009 session will be suffused with politics, as Mike Madigan plots to undermine the governor in order to aid the 2010 candidacy of his daughter, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan. Without an ally controlling the Senate, Blagojevich will border on the irrelevant: He can veto whatever he chooses, but those vetoes will be overridden.

The principal white candidate is John Cullerton (D-6), who represents a district that extends from the Lakefront through Lincoln Park and west to Montrose-Sacramento. Cullerton, age 59, has served in Springfield since 1979, including 12 years as a representative and 18 years as a senator. The knock on Cullerton is that he is a Chicagoan and that he is close to Mike Madigan.

Four other white candidates are waiting in the wings, each hoping for a deadlock and offering himself as a compromise: Don Harmon (D-39) of Oak Park, Jeff Schoenberg (D-9) of Evanston, Terry Link (D-30) of Lake Bluff and John Sullivan (D-47) of Quincy. Harmon and Schoenberg are liberal enough to appeal to black senators, so as to block Cullerton. If Hendon is the black choice, then Cullerton wins. If Clayborne is the black choice, he wins -- but only if he has the backing of Link, Sullivan and the Downstaters.

Seven of the nine black senators are from Chicago, one is from the suburbs, and Clayborne, age 44, is from Downstate. At a Sept. 7 Black Caucus meeting, Hendon played the racial/geographic card, insisting that Jones must be succeeded by a black Chicago senator and blasting Clayborne as too conciliatory. Clayborne responded that 11 senators are Downstaters, that they would reject Hendon, and that he, with a black-Downstate coalition, would win.

Among Democrats, there are three other factions: Hispanics, comprising four senators, suburbanites from Cook, Lake and Will counties, comprising nine senators, and white Chicagoans, comprising five senators.

Another factor is leadership: The Democrats will choose a new majority leader (now Debbie Halvorson, who is running for Congress), five assistant majority leaders, a caucus chairman and two caucus whips. If Cullerton cuts a deal with Clayborne for majority leader, he's in. If Clayborne gets black backing and cuts a deal with Sullivan and Link, he's in. However, if Harmon cuts a deal with Hendon and gets all the suburban white senators and Chicago black senators, he's in.

Hispanics are relevant: Jones made Iris Martinez (D-20) an assistant majority leader, outraging South Siders Marty Sandoval (D-12) and Tony Munoz (D-1). If a contender for Senate president promises to oust Martinez and name one of them, that's two votes.

Two Northwest Side senators not in the mix are Jim DeLeo (D-10) and Ira Silverstein (D-8). DeLeo, from the 36th Ward, has served since 1992, is an assistant majority leader, and has been a Jones and Blagojevich loyalist. He's not deemed credible for the top leadership job, and many expect him to retire in 2010. Silverstein, a senator since 1998, is a liberal independent, but he's been eclipsed by Harmon and Schoenberg as a compromise choice.

The bottom line: For Clayborne, the Senate presidency would boost him onto the statewide political scene. He is a Barack Obama-type black: moderate, conciliatory, reformist and no Blagojevich stooge. He would use his post to expand his visibility, and he would be certain to run for secretary of state in 2014, when black incumbent Jesse White will retire. That would put him on a track for the governorship.

For Cullerton, the presidency would be the culmination of a long legislative career -- a job he would keep for a decade.

For Harmon, Link, Schoenberg or Sullivan, the presidency would be a quick springboard to higher office, perhaps as soon as 2010.

My early prediction: Expect a Cullerton-Clayborne deal for the top two posts.

Included in the adjoining vote chart are the eight area senators, all Democrats: Cullerton, DeLeo, Harmon, Kotowski, Martinez, Schoenberg, Silverstein and Heather Steans, who was appointed in January. All except DeLeo are up for re-election in November, and all except Kotowski are unopposed. Kotowski, who won by just 1,434 votes in 2006 in a heretofore Republican Park Ridge-Des Plaines district, faces a reasonably tough challenge from Elk Grove Township Clerk Mike Sweeney, but he is favored over the Republican.

As can be discerned from the chart, there is Democratic unanimity on most issues, as Jones almost never calls controversial matters for a vote. Two exceptions were the recall of state officials and the rejection of pay raises, both opposed by Jones. Silverstein, Schoenberg and Kotowski backed recall, and all the senators who were present rejected the pay hike.