September 24, 2008


As Republican strategists in the Illinois Senate apprehensively ponder the November election, they should recall the legendary World War II military acronym: SNAFU. It means "Situation Normal: All (Fouled) Up."

In 1994 the Republicans had a 33-26 majority; in 2002 it was 32-27. Now they're a 37-22 minority. Since 2002 it's been a continuous SNAFU, culminating in 2006 with an astounding five Republican-held seats flipping to the Democrats. Holding a super majority, meaning more than 60 percent of the seats, enables the Democrats to override a gubernatorial veto and pass bills in overtime sessions without Republican votes. Republicans are irrelevant.

Ironically, Democratic Senate President Emil Jones has been a stalwart backer of Governor Rod Blagojevich, and their feud with Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan has paralyzed state government. But Republicans won't benefit. Voters may want a "change" in Springfield, but that does not mean they will vote for Republican legislative candidates. In fact, "change" voters likely will hit for every Democrat on the ballot.

With 40 seats up for election in 2008 (24 Democrats and 16 Republicans), it's entirely possible that Republicans could lose several more. Here's the outlook:

33rd District (Park Ridge, Des Plaines, Elk Grove, Mount Prospect): Democrat Dan Kotowski astutely understands that while suburbanites are smugly repelled by "Chicago politics," they're quite susceptible to "Chicago-style politics" -- meaning personal contact at their front door by the candidate himself.

Kotowski, a Rogers Park native, moved to Park Ridge in 2000. He had no political base and no name recognition. He became a full-time candidate in April of 2005, spent 40 hours a week walking precincts, and made 50 to 75 contacts per day. Those contacts got a follow-up letter, regular e-mails, a solicitation to volunteer and contribute, and often a second visit. Kotowski touted himself as an independent, favoring strict gun control laws and supporting universal health care coverage. Against attorney Jim Morici, who spent $250,000, Kotowski won the Democratic primary by a vote of 4,436-2,632, spending $197,846.

In the general election Kotowski refused to endorse Blagojevich, kept working precincts, raised and spent another $463,944 and scored a 1,434-vote upset over appointed Republican incumbent Cheryl Axley, whose mailings ripped Kotowski as a "liberal Chicago Democrat." Axley spent $313,862.

Since his victory, Kotowski, age 41, has continued to walk precincts. "I spend 4 hours a day, every day, when I'm not in Springfield," he said. "Walking is my religion." The senator now touts his "record of accomplishment," including sponsorship of 15 bills and co-sponsorship of 69 others. Among the measures he takes credit for are the 7 percent yearly cap on property tax assessments, real-time online posting of all state contracts and awards, broadened benefits for veterans, including property tax relief, Internet safety education, mandatory insurance coverage for breast cancer screenings, extending community colleges to 4-year degrees and permitting dependent young adults age 18 to 26 to remain on their parents' health care policy. He also opposed the proposed gross receipts tax.

"There's a lot of disaffection with Springfield and the governor," Kotowski admitted. "We must move beyond the bickering. We must implement reform."

"I look forward to a new governor." Kotowski adds.

"My job is a lot like being an alderman," said Kotowski. "People want service. People expect results." Through June 30, Kotowski raised $170,196.

However, according to Kotowski's foe, Republican Mike Sweeney, the senator is part of the problem. "He's a yes man for the governor and for Jones," Sweeney said. "Spending is out of control. Yet he voted to increase spending on 98 percent of the budget votes in the past 2 years." Sweeney said that Kotowski voted for fund sweeps in 2008 and 2009 that removed money from the toll highway fund, capital building funds and the Sex Offender Registration Fund, and for the $16 billion pension bond, the Lottery lease and increasing Medicaid spending by $750 million.

Adds Sweeney, the Elk Grove Township clerk: "He's just another self-serving politician. In 2007 he voted for a 9.6 percent pay hike and voted for the 2008 budget, which contained a 3.5 percent pay hike. In 2008 he voted for the 2009 budget, which contained a 3.8 percent pay hike. Who else gets a 17 percent pay hike over 2 years?"

Kotowski voted in 2008 to reject the proposed pay hike. "But he's being disingenuous," Sweeney said. "He voted to reject a hike that he gave himself, and only because it was politically expedient."

Sweeney, age 29, has learned a lesson from Axley's defeat. "There was a (Republican) mindset," he said. "We thought it was our seat forever. Now we have to work twice as hard to get it back." Sweeney said that he spends 6 to 7 hours per day walking precincts.

The outlook: The district contains 188 precincts, and it runs from Canfield Avenue in Chicago to just east of the Woodfield Mall shopping center. It has seven precincts in Chicago (west of Canfield and north of Lawrence Avenue), five in Leyden Township (Rosemont), eight in Norwood Park Township, 67 in Maine Township (Park Ridge and Des Plaines), 73 in Elk Grove Township (Elk Grove and Mount Prospect), 22 in Wheeling Township (part of Arlington Heights and Rolling Meadows), and six in Palatine and Schaumburg townships.

In 2006 Kotowski won his base in Maine Township by 1,196 votes, while Axley won her base in Elk Grove Township by 401 votes and carried Wheeling Township by 395 votes. Kotowski won the Chicago precincts by 617 votes. Overall, Kotowski won by 29,293-27,859, getting 51.2 percent of the vote, making him the first Democrat to ever represent a Park Ridge-based district in the Illinois Senate.

My prediction: Like Axley, Sweeney's base is in Elk Grove Township and the western portion of the district. Like Axley, he is utterly unknown in Maine Township. Unlike Axley, he is working precincts. Unlike Axley, he is running an anemically low-budget campaign, with only $9,395 raised through June 30. Unlike Axley, Sweeney is not the incumbent. Unlike Axley, Kotowski has used his incumbency to maximum advantage, elevating his name recognition.

"There's a lot of enthusiasm for Obama," said Kotowski, who is a supporter of the Democratic nominee. "There a lot of antagonism toward Blagojevich," Sweeney said. However, the contest is essentially a referendum on Kotowski, not on the governor or the president. Kotowski has done a superlative job of entrenching himself. He will squash Sweeney with 60 percent of the vote.

42nd District (Aurora, Plainfield, suburban Joliet, Shorewood): This historically Republican district elected Democrat Linda Holmes by 2,843 votes (with 52.4 percent of the vote) in 2006, primarily because she carried the Kane County precincts (which include heavily Hispanic Aurora) by 5,377 votes. Her 2006 foe, Republican Terri Ann Wintermute, is back for a second crack. Holmes spent $613,952 in 2006, to $331,938 for Wintermute.

Holmes' ill-advised votes for gambling expansion and legislative pay hikes and her lock-step support of Emil Jones -- and the governor -- have made her vulnerable. Republicans are trying to make the race a referendum on Blagojevich. My prediction: Holmes will lose.

26th District (Barrington, Wauconda, Cary, Lake Zurich, Mundelein, Libertyville): This upscale suburban district went 60.1 percent for George Bush in 2004, but Democrats smell an upset in 2008. Incumbent Republican Bill Peterson is retiring, and the Republican nominee is businessman Dan Duffy; he is opposed by Round Lake Mayor Bill Gentes. As a local official, Gentes will run well in Lake County.  Republicans cannot permit the loss of a district like this. My prediction: Duffy will spend upwards of $500,000, and he will barely win.

45th District (Freeport, Sterling, Galena, Dixon, Geneseo): Nestled in the far northwest corner of the state, this Republican bastion also could flip. Bush won with 56.2 percent of the vote in 2004, but appointed incumbent Tim Bivins, a former Lee County sheriff, faces Democrat Marty Mulcahey of Galena, the son of a former state legislator. Bivins is well known in the southern portion of the district, and the Mulcahey name is well known in the north. My prediction: It's all about geography, with an edge to Mulcahey.

27th District (Buffalo Grove, Arlington Heights, Palatine, Prospect Heights, Inverness): First-term Republican Matt Murphy barely won in 2006, topping Peter Gutzmer by 3,183 votes, with 52.6 percent of the vote, but Todd Stroger has come to Murphy's rescue. Stroger's sale tax increase means that many residents drive north of Lake-Cook Road to buy gas, cigarettes and other staples. Murphy supports Palatine Township's secession from Cook County, and his anti-Stroger, anti-spending stance is popular. He will win easily.

35th District (DeKalb, Sycamore, Belvidere): This rural district, with a growing suburbia around DeKalb, is historically Republican, and it went 56.2 percent for Bush in 2004. However, Bill Foster's win in a March special congressional election has energized area Democrats, and Ryan Gailey, a law student and a Foster protege, is running against 16-year Republican incumbent Brad Burzynski. If Foster clobbers Jim Oberweis again, and if students in DeKalb vote heavily for Obama, Burzynski is in trouble. Give him a narrow edge.

The bottom line: In 2009 the Illinois Senate will still be 37-22 Democratic. For the Republicans, that's a SNAFU.