October 19, 2011


When politicians ponder their prospective immortality, they usually envisage their name on an important piece of legislation or, at worst, slapped on some building, street sign, room or award.

But there is one Northwest Side politician whose name is indelibly and immortally attached to a syndrome, which is defined as the confluence of symptoms that characterize a disease or condition. It's the "Howie Carroll Syndrome," and this invasive disease afflicts many of the 59 members of the Illinois Senate.

Carroll, as most readers won't remember, was a powerful Springfield insider who served as a state senator for 26 years. First elected in 1972 at age 30, Carroll rose to become part of the Senate's Democratic leadership, and he eventually chaired the Appropriations I Committee, which handles the budget for state social service agencies. Every provider who wanted a state dollar was kissing his shoes, and every public employee union lobbyist thought he was a gift of the gods.

Carroll's district, which stretched from the 45th Ward on the west through the 39th and 40th wards, Lincolnwood and south Skokie to the West Rogers Park 50th Ward on the east, was deemed to be overwhelmingly Democratic and utterly safe for him. Carroll, a tax-hiking liberal, deemed it wise to keep a low profile so as not to rile the voters, especially ethnic conservatives in the west end of the district. Carroll's political base was the largely Jewish 50th Ward.

As elections passed and Republican opponents barely cracked 35 percent of the vote, and no Democrat presumed to challenge him, Carroll came to be deemed a local powerhouse.

So when iconic U.S. Representative Sid Yates retired in 1998 after 48 years in office, Carroll was the anointed candidate of everyone -- the ward Democratic committeemen, the Jewish establishment, the unions, the social workers. But then, in a nasty primary featuring Jan Schakowsky and J.B. Pritzker, "Humpty Dumpty Carroll" not only fell off the wall, he discovered that the wall was only a few inches high.

In short, despite 26 years in office and eight districtwide campaigns, plus wins for committeeman in the 50th Ward, Carroll discovered that he was unknown, undefined, unloved and fundamentally unelectable. He had no base of fervent followers. He had no tested precinct organization in place. He was a paper tiger.

Schakowsky, an 8-year state representative, had a highly visible "pro-consumer" record, had great appeal to feminists and ideological liberals, and had built an awesome precinct machine in Evanston. In a turnout of 69,622, Schakowsky won Evanston with 77.0 percent of the vote and topped Carroll by 7,480 votes, getting 54.9 percent of the total cast. Carroll got under 45 percent in his 50th Ward base and a humiliating 34.4 percent districtwide.

The "Howie Carroll Syndrome," which affects all senators, plays like this:

First, in the remap following the census, the party in control creates 20-odd Senate districts which overwhelmingly favor the opposition. In 1981, 2001 and 2011, Democratic mapmakers packed as many Republicans as possible into as few districts as possible. The other 39-odd districts were designed to elect Democrats. The Republicans don't even contest Senate races in Cook County, Will County and eastern Lake County. In any election, at most two to three seats are in play.

The Democrats currently have a 35-24 majority, and their remap handiwork could shave the number of Republican seats back to 20.

Second, occupying such partisan districts, the incumbents can vote as they choose without fear of voter reprisal. Democrats can vote for an income tax hike, civil unions or death penalty abolition without fear that a Republican can exploit their votes.

But the Democrats are not a bunch of fractious independents. Senate President John Cullerton raises $5 million per election cycle, spends it on key contests (such as his $800,000 to elect John Mulroe in 2010 in the 10th District), and compels every senator to vote as the Democratic caucus (meaning Cullerton) dictates, unless the vote is not needed. Note that, among local senators, only Ira Silverstein voted against the income tax, and only Mulroe voted for the death penalty. The Democratic senators vote for Democratic policies crafted in Springfield, not for their districts' interests.

Third, senators are on the ballot only three times per decade, unlike state representatives, who must run every 2 years, or five times per decade.

All senators run in their new districts in the first election after the census, but they are then grouped into three categories: 20 with 2/4/4 terms, meaning facing the voters in 2012, 2014 and 2018, 19 with 4/2/4 terms, running in 2012, 2016 and 2018, and 20 with 4/4/2 terms, running in 2012, 2016 and 2020. That means that in 2014 and 2020 only 20 senators will be on the ballot, compared to 59 in 2012 and 39 in 2016 and 2018. A Republican Senate takeover is an impossibility.

Fourth, awash in money, incumbents from both parties need not campaign nor explain their votes. If word circulates that Cullerton is prepared to spend $500,000 to defend his minions, then the Republicans will find it impossible to recruit a viable opponent and will use their scarcer resources to defend their incumbents.

A classic example was Jim DeLeo (D-10), who served from 1992 to 2010, when he resigned and Mulroe got his seat. DeLeo was in leadership, had more than $750,000 in his campaign account, and was unopposed in all five of his primaries and elections, but, like Carroll, he was unknown to voters and would have won no higher office.

The adjoining vote chart depicts the roll-call votes of area senators, all facing reelection in 2012. All are Democrats. Willie Delgado and Iris Martinez represent North Side Hispanic-majority districts and are secure.

Heather Steans, is a rich socialite whose husband contributed heavily to Rod Blagojevich and to Steans' predecessor, Carol Ronen, and effectively bought a seat for his wife. She is safe in her Edgewater/Rogers Park district, simply because everybody expects she will spend $500,000 of the family money to keep the seat. Steans won the 2010 primary with 64.8 percent of the vote over a gay activist. She is a predictable liberal, pro-Cullerton vote, but she is still barely known.

Don Harmon, the Oak Park Township Democratic committeeman, is a close ally of Cullerton and has risen to the honorific post of Senate president pro tempore. His voted for the tax hike and civil unions and against the death penalty, reflecting majority opinion in his district. Harmon has built a political machine which controls local government in Oak Park. He was unopposed in 2008, and he will be again in 2012. No Carroll-like complacency afflicts Harmon, who will be around as a senator for a long time.

Silverstein won Carroll's Senate seat in 1998, and he covets Schakowsky's U.S. House seat. An Orthodox Jew, Silverstein is the unquestioned king of West Rogers Park. He eliminated his major adversary, Berny Stone, ousting him as committeeman in 2008, and his wife Debra Silverstein beat Stone for alderman in 2011. But there is no Silverstein machine similar to Harmon's or Schakowsky's.

After voting for the tax hike, Mulroe should have a target pinned on his back. His vote is owned by Cullerton, whose money insured Mulroe's 5,884-vote (55.4 percent) 2010 win over then-Alderman Brian Doherty. The Republicans have evaporated, and Mulroe has a solidly Democratic district. He will hold the seat for the next decade.

The only senator in just a smidgeon of difficulty is Dan Kotowski of Park Ridge, who scored a mammoth upset in 2006, taking a seat held by Republicans since the 1860s. Kotowski's methodology is simple: He walks precincts for 4 hours every day he is not in Springfield. In his current district, encompassing Park Ridge, Des Plaines, Mount Prospect and Elk Grove, Kotowski was safe despite his pro-tax vote. With his "Mr. Friendly" persona, Kotowski was unbeatable.

But the new map chopped away half his district, adding Streamwood, Roselle and part of Schaumburg -- an area where he is unknown. Two Republicans have surfaced: Roselle Mayor Gayle Smolinski and deep-pocketed Park Ridge businessman James O'Donnell. Kotowski should be very worried.