July 14, 2021

Just as in the financial market, where certain stocks and investments are stinkers, clinkers and clunkers, so too have been more than half of Illinois voters' choices of elected statewide officials, particularly among the 52 U.S. senators who served since the place was admitted as a state in 1818.

There have been a bunch of mediocrities and non-entities. Since 1850 a total of 24 senators have served one term or less, or were appointed and then defeated, or were expelled or not seated, or just served time and retired. What a grand legacy.

In the U.S. Senate no member has any credibility unless he or she wins a second term. Given the advantages of incumbency - the media access and visibility, and fund-raising capability - a loss after one term is indicative of ineptitude, or possibly changing state demographics, or just plain bad luck. Since 1850 the state has had just six senators who served two terms and eight who served three or more terms, of which 32 were Democrats, 22 Republicans.

The longevity record belongs to Shelby Moore Cullom (R), a former governor who served 1882-1912, a total of 30 years. Current senator Dick Durbin (D), who was first elected in 1996, will tie that record in 2026. Durbin is age 76 and was re-elected in 2020. U.S. Representative Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-8) is already pursuing the seat and has $8,427,847 cash-on-hand. Durbin has $1,076,487.

The U. S. Constitution as originally adopted mandated two senators per state, with sequenced 6-year terms and 33-34 senators elected per cycle, all to be chosen by each state's legislature. That was changed by the 17th Amendment, effective 1912, which authorized the direct election of senators.

Illinois played a major role in that event: Chicagoan William Lorimer, the Republican West Side boss, was elected by the legislature in 1909 and seated. The Chicago Tribune disclosed in 1910 that Lorimer bribed more than half Illinois' 236 legislators by giving them $1,000 each to vote for him. So it cost him about $125,000.

That was then standard operating procedure in most states. Legislators had paltry pay, and the senate pick was their "bonus." A senate investigation found that Lorimer used "corrupt methods and practices" and he was expelled.

When he returned to Chicago he was given a parade.

After 1912 senate contenders had to bribe political bosses to deliver statewide votes for them, which cost more. But again Illinois was in the forefront, inventing pay-to-play. Why pay the bribes yourself? Use other people's money. In 1920 congressman Frank Smith (R) ran for senator but lost the Republican primary to William McKinley. This was the first year women could vote, and ballots were counted separately. McKinley got a majority among women and beat Smith, who thereafter became chairman of the state Commerce Commission, which regulated traction (streetcar and elevated lines) and utilities. Smith ran again in 1926 and raised an unheard of $400,000, with $125,000 from Chicago traction magnate Samuel Insull. He beat McKinley and won the election.

But Smith was never seated. A senate committee found fraud and corruption and he was expelled. Smith won a 1927 special election, and then got expelled again.

There are five categories in the ranking of Illinois senators. Those are accomplishment, leadership, disappointment, irrelevance and, in the case of Lorimer and Smith, corruption.

ACCOMPLISHMENT: Stephen Douglas (D) just had a Chicago park de-named, but he was a powerful senator (1847-61) and master vacillator on slavery, supporting Texas statehood, advocating "popular sovereignty" (letting new states vote to ban or accept slavery), opposing the Wilmot Proviso and authoring the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act, which repealed the 1850 Missouri Compromise, which had banned slavery in the Louisiana Purchase states and territories. He was a "doughface," a Northern man with Southern sympathies. He tried to please everybody but pleased nobody. He lost to Lincoln in 1860.

Lyman Trumbull (R) served 1855-73, was an abolitionist, chairman of the Judiciary committee and co-author of the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery; he voted to acquit in the Johnson impeachment.

David Davis (1877-83) was a U.S. Supreme Court justice (1862-77) who is best remembered as the man who facilitated the outcome of the 1876 fraudulent presidential election. Sam Tilden (D) beat Rutherford Hayes (R) in the popular vote, but 20 Southern electoral votes were in dispute. Davis was a nominal Democrat and would have been on the commission to resolve the dispute. He was pro-Tilden. So in a masterful move Illinois' Republican legislature conveniently elected him senator and President Grant appointed a Republican replacement - and Hayes won 185-184, getting all the disputed states.

Another notable was Paul Douglas (D), a liberal college professor and Hyde Park alderman who joined the Marines at age 50 to fight in WWII. He won in a 1948 upset and was a civil rights champion and anti-communist "Cold Warrior" who backed LBJ's Vietnam War. He lost in 1966 at age 74. Also include Cullom, who fought for regulations to curb monopolies and had the unbelievable luck to be elected in 1882, 1888, 1894, 1900 and 1906 - all years when Republicans controlled the legislature. He retired in 1912 at age 83. John Logan (R) was a Civil War general who served two non-consecutive terms and ran for vice-president in 1884. He was a champion of the patronage system.

But Illinois' diamond is Barack Obama, an African-American elected state senator (1996), then U.S. senator (2004) and then president (2008). He was the right man in the right place at the right time.

LEADERSHIP: It wasn't until after 1912 that the senate created a hierarchy, with majority and minority leaders and whips. They had the talent to manipulate and pontificate, and the power to enact or block legislation. Hamilton "Ham" Lewis (D) was majority whip during his first term, but lost in 1918. He won again in 1930, was whip again, and died in 1939. Scott Lucas (D) was a Downstate congressman who won an open seat in 1938, became majority leader in 1948, but then lost to Everett Dirksen (R) in 1950 because of Cook County Democratic scandals. Dirksen became minority leader in 1958. Once a virulent conservative (a Taft, not Dewey Republican), Dirksen morphed into the "Great Conciliator." He backed JFK in the 1962 Cuban missile crisis and he delivered Republican votes for the 1964 Civil Rights Act. He also supported LBJ on Vietnam. He got free passes in 1962 and 1968.

But he was a lifelong smoker and it was common knowledge by 1968 that he was dying of lung cancer (he did die in Sept. 1969). Ralph Tyler Smith was speaker of the Illinois House and wanted to run for governor in 1968. But he cut a deal with Dick Ogilvie (R): He would endorse him in exchange for the Dirksen appointment. He got it. But then lost by over 500,000 votes to Adlai Stevenson III (D) in 1970.

Dick Durbin (D) is adept at the art of propagandizing - and he is a total opportunist. He won a congressional seat in 1982 by attacking the incumbent (R) as anti-Israel. He was anti-abortion until he ran in 1996. He became whip in 2005, but lost in 2016 to Chuck Schumer (D-NY) for leader. He will probably never get the top job. But he is thus far unbeatable in Illinois.

DISAPPOINTMENT: Chuck Percy (R) was the "boy wonder" CEO of Bell Howell while in his 30s. He ran for governor in 1964 and lost respectably. He beat Douglas in 1966 and his presidential ambitions blossomed. He was re-elected in 1972 by over 1,000,000 votes (beating Roman Pucinski). But Percy chose a liberal path, opposing Nixon's Vietnam policies and Supreme Court picks. His presumption was that 1976 was his year - that Nixon would be gone and that he would face Vice-President Spiro Agnew.

Both were gone by 1974, and Gerald Ford was president. Percy won by just 250,000 in 1978, evidence of conservative discontent. He became chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee in 1981, but lost to Paul Simon (D) in 1984. Simon was a competent senator, but went nowhere in his 1988 presidential run. He retired in 1996, and Durbin won the seat.

Stevenson was a legacy. His father was governor and two-time presidential loser and grandfather vice-president. But he was bland and boring, as demonstrated when he lost governor races in 1982 and 1986 after retiring in 1980.

IRRELEVANCE: I came, I sat, and I left. That describes many senators, like Alan Dixon (D), Carol Moseley Braun (D), who beat Dixon in 1992, Peter Fitzgerald (R), who beat Braun in 1998, and Mark Kirk (R), who won Obama's seat in 2010 but lost to Tammy Duckworth (D) in 2016. Add Wayland "Curly" Brooks (R) to this list; he lost to Douglas in 1948. They left no imprint.

Duckworth, age 53, is up for re-election in 2022. She beat Kirk 3,012,940-2,184,692 in 2016, running almost even with Hillary Clinton, who won Illinois 3,090,729-2,146,015.

An Army reserve lieutenant colonel, Duckworth was deployed to Iraq as a helicopter pilot and lost parts of both legs in a crash. As senator she has focused on veterans' issues and anti-Asian hate crimes. She has no credible opposition in 2022.