January 24, 2018



Illinois senior U.S. Senator Dick Durbin is a regular kind of a guy who has developed extraordinary skills as a politician, tactician and propagandist. As a legislator, he has few accomplishments in my opinion, but in the Washington of Donald Trump and its gridlock, Durbin is a powerhouse, if not a superpower.

In his 21 years as a senator, and before that in his 14 years as a Springfield-area congressman, Democrat Durbin, age 73, was renowned - and reviled by Republicans - for his stellar abilities as a talker, not as a doer. One can argue that despite being in Washington for 35 years, and his work on improving healthcare, protecting consumers and fighting for Illinois, one of his main accomplishments is that you can't smoke cigarettes on a commercial airplane.

But Durbin has been a lawmaker for so long because Illinois is so monolithically Democratic that not many can beat him. He, unlike most of his 54 Illinois senatorial predecessors since 1818, of which five were appointees, is noteworthy because of one reason: He is the Democratic Senate Minority Whip at a time when all he needs to do is snarl, snipe, ridicule, and, as he recently did regarding the president's remarks about immigrants from African countries at a White House meeting, tattle to the news media. For Durbin, "leadership" means no negotiation, no compromise and no conceding of good intentions to anybody who is not a Democrat, despite working with Senator Lindsey Graham (R ) on an immigration bill.

It didn't used to be that way. Illinois has occasionally elected senators who saw their role as bridging partisan and ideological gaps, not digging them deeper. The most illustrious of that small ilk was Everett Dirksen (R), who served from 1951 to 1969, and was Senate minority leader for the ten years prior to his death. It was Dirksen who delivered sufficient Republican votes in 1964 to pass the landmark Civil Rights Act and insure voting rights to blacks in the South. It has long been forgotten that it was the Republicans, up through the end of the 1950's, who were the pro-civil rights party, both in Congress and in the statehouses. It was President Dwight Eisenhower (R) who sent federal troops to Arkansas in 1957 to desegregate the Little Rock school system. And it was southern Democrats who, for over a century after the Civil War, subjugated and intimidated blacks so as to maintain local political power and have veto power over the national Democratic Party on racial matters.

Had Dirksen had Durbin's mindframe, and had Dirksen unthinkingly rejected every idea then proposed by every Democrat, a decade or more would have delayed the movement toward black empowerment. But Dirksen had the idea that his job was to govern, to facilitate and not terminate. So critical was Dirksen of President John Kennedy (D) that during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, which occurred just prior to the 1962 off-year congressional elections in which Dirksen was on the Illinois ballot, the president summoned the senator to Washington for "consultations." That act effectively destroyed the candidacy of U.S. Representative Sid Yates (D), the Daley Machine's candidate for senator, and Dirksen triumphed 1,961,202-1,748,007, a margin of 213,195 votes. In other states that year, like Indiana, Wisconsin, Iowa and Indiana, young "New Frontier" Kennedyesque Democrats beat elderly stick-in-the-mud Republicans. But not in Illinois.

Each state has two senators elected for 6-year terms, and those terms are staggered so that not more than a third of the 100 senators are on the ballot in any given election. And that, in effect, is an incumbent protection plan. Unlike House members, who face the vicissitudes of the voters every 2 years, an elected senator is on the ballot every sixth year, and that alternates between a presidential and a non-presidential year. In every state, over a 6-year period, demographics can change, the incumbent in the White House can induce voter pushback against a senator of his party, and/or the incumbent can cast votes that alienate some of the electorate. In some states a long-serving senator becomes revered and iconic, and thus unbeatable. In others, his or her shelf life diminishes after a term or two, and they are out of the office. But the basic intention of the Founding Fathers was to have the insiders, meaning each state's legislators, pick the senators. That didn't change until 1912, when popular statewide elections were mandated by a constitutional amendment.

Since then, Illinois has had 26 senators, 14 of them Democrats (although one Democrat, J. Hamilton "Ham" Lewis, served two non-consecutive terms). The state's longest-serving senator was Shelby Cullom (R), with an astounding 6 terms from 1883 to 1913. The key to his 30-year longevity was that Republicans happened to have legislative majorities in the years when his term expired, which were after the 1888, 1894, 1900 and 1906 elections. Since the advent of popular elections, Durbin currently holds the longevity record: 22 years since his first election in 1996, with easy re-elections in 2002, 2008 and 2014, and another portending in 2020. Dirksen served 19 years, winning in 1950, with re-elections in 1956, 1962 and 1968, the latter two being competitive races. Paul Douglas (D) and the man who beat him in 1966, Chuck Percy (R), managed to win three terms, as did "Ham" Lewis, who won in 1912, 1930 and 1936, dying in 1939. Quite remarkably, as compared to other states, Illinois' sitting senators get defeated quite regularly and quite soundly, with appointees out the door quite quickly.

Many recent Illinois senators have been in-and-outers, serving a partial appointive term, or having won a first term but then bungling re-election (or not even trying). Given the visibility and resources a senator can generate, there are no excuses. Carol Moseley Braun comes readily to mind. In 1992, the much-hyped "Year of the Woman," Braun won the Democratic primary with just 38 percent in an upset over 2-term incumbent Alan Dixon and rich trial lawyer Al Hofeld, and then got elected by a margin of 509,396 votes, making her Illinois' first black and first female senator. In that 1992 election, Bill Clinton (D) won Illinois by 719,254 votes over President Bush. But, through a term characterized by missteps and mishaps, in 1998 she lost to Peter Fitzgerald (R) by 98,545 votes. Another short-termer was Mark Kirk (R), who won Barack Obama's open seat in 2010 by 59,220 votes, had a serious stroke shortly thereafter, and lost to current incumbent Tammy Duckworth (D) by 758,264 votes in 2016. Prior senators can be bunched into specific groups:

DISTINCTIVE AND DISTINGUISHED: Paul Douglas (D), an unknown Hyde Park alderman, was the Democrats' "sacrificial" candidate in 1948 against entrenched incumbent Wayland Brooks (R), known then as the "Chicago Tribune's senator," who won in 1940 and 1942. But Harry Truman won Illinois in 1948 by 33,612 votes, and Douglas trounced Brooks by 407,728 votes, and won re-election in 1954 and 1960. Douglas was a Truman era, Cold-War anti-communist Democrat, and his support of Lyndon Johnson's Vietnam policies, as well as advancing age, spelled his doom; he lost to the more "dovish" Chuck Percy (R) in 1966 by 422,302 votes. Clearly, Douglas's time (he was age 74 in 1966) and ideology had come and gone.

Add to this list Paul Simon, a card-carrying liberal dating back to the 1950 when he was a Democratic state legislator from Downstate Carbondale. Simon got elected lieutenant governor in 1968, lost the 1972 Democratic primary for governor to Dan Walker, won an open U.S. House seat in 1974, and beat Percy in 1984 by 89,126 votes. Voters may have disagreed with his ideology, but that always respected his character and integrity. Add Fitzgerald: He went to Washington, voted conservative, realized he couldn't win re-election, and retired in 2004, clearing the way for Barack Obama.

TIME SERVERS: Adlai Stevenson III, son of the governor and 1952 and 1956 Democratic presidential candidate, was born with a silver spoon and a gold-plated name. In 1964, when the court ordered an at-large election for the 177 state representatives, Stevenson finished first among 236 candidates. He got elected state treasurer in 1966, and won Dirksen's open seat in 1970 by 545,336 votes over appointee Ralph Tyler Smith (R). He made no mark in Washington during his 1970-80 tenure, and lost bids for governor in 1982 and 1986.

OPPORTUNISTS: Percy was the worst, followed closely by Dirksen, Durbin and Dixon. Percy hungered to be president and tacked liberal during his first term, willing re-election by 1,146,047 votes over Roman Pucinski, casting a bunch of anti-Nixon votes, positioning himself as the anti-Spiro Agnew candidate for 1976. But with Nixon and Agnew gone and Ford in, Percy tacked right, apologized to conservative voters in 1978 TV ads, and won by just 250,524 votes, a margin down by nearly 900,000 from 1972. Clearly, voters were tiring of Percy's zigzagging. Ditto for Dixon, a Downstater known as "Al the Pal." He was all over the place. But his thin base collapsed when he voted to confirm Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court in 1991.

Dirksen morphed from an anti-New Deal conservative to a moderate, and Durbin from a moderate to a rabid liberal. Durbin, who had $3,035,021 on-hand as of Dec. 31, will be around for a lot longer.

Send an e-mail to russ@russstewart.com or visit his Web site at www.russstewart.com.