Cullerton Quietly Leaves a Large Legacy in Springfield
She's succeeding in Chicago, but is Springfield ready to deal?
Illinois Senate President John Cullerton may not be a household name in Illinois, unlike the state’s governors or even House Speaker Michael Madigan. But the Democrat from the North Side of Chicago has had an enormous impact on state government.
During Cullerton’s tenure as president, the Senate expelled one governor and sidelined another to end the worst budget crisis in Illinois history. The legislature voted to end the death penalty and to allow same-sex marriages. It reworked the state’s school funding formulas to help at-need schools and massively expanded gambling in the state (twice), both inordinately complex and politically dicey endeavors. Lawmakers also passed two major public works programs and sent voters a constitutional amendment that would allow the state to impose higher income tax rates on wealthier taxpayers.
The Senate Democrats flourished during Cullerton’s presidency, with historically high numbers of seats that gave Democrats veto-proof supermajorities -- often with votes to spare. At the same time, though, Cullerton made an effort to include his Republican colleagues on major legislative initiatives. Most poignantly, he and then-Senate Republican Leader Christine Radogno worked for months on a “grand bargain” to end a budget standoff, showing a united front in editorial board meetings and in legislative hearings.
Cullerton is leaving Springfield shortly after he helped produce one of the most productive legislative sessions in a generation, but also at a time when reporters have been scrutinizing his personal and campaign finances. His Democratic caucus, meanwhile, has faced a series of scandals. One lawmaker who is a distant relative of Cullerton faces trial next summer for allegedly taking a no-show job with the Teamsters, while another senator recently announced he would soon resign, after federal agents raided his capitol offices. Cullerton’s inclination to let the legal processes play out before punishing scandal-ridden legislators has upset government watchdogs and even other Senate Democrats.
But according to those who have worked closely with Cullerton, he will be remembered as a productive legislator who brought a new style of leadership to Springfield during a decade of huge challenges to the state.
Cullerton grew up in the DuPage County suburb of Winfield but attended college and law school in Chicago and launched his political career there. He first won election to the Illinois House of Representatives in 1978, making him one of the few current legislators who served in the House before Madigan became speaker.
Although Cullerton was single when he first joined the House, he soon married and had kids (he has five children and three grandchildren). His growing family led him to one of his signature issues as a legislator: traffic safety. He started with car seats. Like many parents of the time, he originally did not use a car seat for his own children. “I remember handing my daughter off to my wife and sitting in the front seat of the car on the way home from the hospital,” he says. But safety experts started touting the importance of car seats. Cullerton’s wife, Pamela, started a loaner program in their neighborhood for families to borrow car seats for their children. As Cullerton’s family grew, the back seat of his car eventually had three car seats.
At the time, though, only one state in the country (Tennessee) required parents to put their children in car seats. Cullerton sponsored legislation in 1983 that made Illinois the second. It only applied to parents transporting their own children in their own cars, but it was a start. “I learned that you start with just getting your foot in the door. It was a very minimal bill. It was not expansive,” he says. “Later on, I expanded it.”
Once Cullerton became known as a safety advocate in the legislature, he took on bigger issues. When he started pushing for a mandatory seat belt law, he says, only 15 percent of Illinoisans used seat belts. “Can you imagine asking people to vote for a bill requires 85 percent of their constituents to do something that they did want to do? That’s not that easy,” he said. One of the ways he built support was by reaching across the aisle. One of his cosponsors on that legislation was Rep. Lee Daniels, a Republican who went on to lead the GOP caucus and served a term as House speaker.
“You’re literally pushing a button to pass a bill that will save lives,” Cullerton says. “Eventually, those bills would have passed, but the earlier you pass them, the more lives you save.”
After mandatory front seat seatbelts became law, Cullerton went on to tackle other issues: lowering the legal threshold for drunk driving to 0.08 percent blood alcohol content, introducing graduated driver’s licenses for teenagers, combating distracted driving and requiring drivers convicted of drunk driving to use an interlock ignition device. He pushed for mandated helmet use for motorcyclists, but Illinois remains one of a handful of states without such a law. Still, the Governors Highway Safety Association, a national safety advocacy group, honored Cullerton in 2009 with a trailblazer award. “Cullerton,” the group said at the time, “has amassed a traffic safety record that likely surpasses that of any state legislator in the nation.”
One of Cullerton’s traffic safety efforts led him to a partnership with Barack Obama, then another Illinois state senator. Cullerton was looking to expand Illinois’s seat belt law, while Obama wanted to gather data to determine whether cops were racially profiling motorists during traffic stops. Although they were distinct bills, they involved a lot of the same constituencies. So Cullerton and Obama cosponsored each other’s bills and worked to pass both. Both senators attended the signing ceremonies for both of the bills.
The best part, Cullerton says, is that seatbelt use in Illinois is now up to 94 percent. “It’s an example of starting at half a loaf and constantly getting better at it,” he says.
Rising to prominence
Cullerton left the House in 1991 to move to the Senate. He replaced Dawn Clark Netsch, who had been elected as the state comptroller. Republicans won the right to draw legislative district maps following the 1990 Census, and the GOP took control of the state Senate in 1993. When they did so, they passed rules that concentrated power in the hands of the Senate president. Those rules have been modified, but they are still the basis of the rules that the chamber uses today.
Democrats regained control of the Senate following the 2000 Census, because they won the right to draw the maps. (The Illinois Constitution calls for a random drawing to break deadlocks in the redistricting process, if the legislature cannot pass a plan on its own.)
With Democrats in the majority, Cullerton became the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee. That thrust him in the middle of controversies big and small, including how judges were allocated in Cook and the collar counties, efforts to curb medical malpractice awards, criminal matters and efforts to reform the death penalty. Cullerton, though, decided that one aspect of the capital punishment debate was too controversial to be included in a larger reform bill. So he separated the question of whether to require videotaped interrogations of murder suspects in death penalty cases from the rest of the reforms. Obama took the lead on mandating videotaped interrogations, and the measure eventually passed unanimously.
But as Obama’s star rose, thanks to his 2004 speech at the Democratic National Convention, Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich became increasingly caught up in scandals that linked official actions – like board appointments or fund disbursements – to campaign contributions. Blagojevich became increasingly hostile toward Madigan, and Senate President Emil Jones, Jr., often sided with the beleaguered governor.
But in August 2008, Jones announced he would not seek reelection. That set off a scramble among Senate Democrats to succeed him. One of the crucial tests was who could do the most for candidates who were on the ballot in November, just three months after Jones’ announcement.
“I started raising money, which I had never done before,” Cullerton says. “I started asking my colleagues for support, which is by far one of the most humbling things you can ever do… The only voters are politicians, and everybody is the same. Everybody’s equal. It’s very presumptuous to ask one of your equals to elevate you to this high position.”
As he talks, Cullerton keeps coming back to the idea of what a humbling process it is. “You'll just be shocked at how humbling it is,” he tells his would-be successors. “You just think you’re going to have certain people support you right away and you don’t. Then you question everything you ever did in your past. You say, ‘Why wasn’t I ever nicer to that guy?’ The stakes are high, because it’s a very powerful position.”
Cullerton’s most formidable opponent turned out to be Sen. James Clayborne, Jr., from the St. Louis area. Cullerton says the contest was very civil. But neither Cullerton nor Clayborne had enough votes during the first round of balloting to win the presidency outright. During a break after the initial vote, Clayborne offered to make a deal: he’d support Cullerton for president if Cullerton made him majority leader (the second-highest position in the caucus). Cullerton accepted.
Cullerton initially thought he could get Madigan and Blagojevich to talk and resolve some of their differences. But events spiraled after Obama won the presidential election. Obama’s victory opened up a U.S. Senate seat that Blagojevich could fill. The governor started to wonder aloud, on the phone, what he could do with such a “golden” opportunity and what he could get in return. The FBI, though, had tapped his phones. Federal agents arrested Blagojevich at 6:15 a.m. on Dec. 9, 2008. The Illinois House almost immediately began impeachment proceedings.
A different kind of leader
Blagojevich swore Cullerton in as Senate president on Jan. 14, 2009, and, almost immediately, the Senate began preparing for the governor’s impeachment trial. Even though Blagojevich was a Democrat, he could count on little support from his fellow Democrats in the legislature during the impeachment. The House approved charges against him on a 117-1 vote, with the only dissent coming from Blagojevich’s sister-in-law. Two weeks later, the Senate voted unanimously to remove Blagojevich from office. Cullerton called it a “shameful low” in Illinois’ history.
“I personally voted to remove Mr. Blagojevich, the former governor, from office today for three reasons,” Cullerton said after the vote. “He has demonstrated a clear inability to govern. He has shown disdain for the laws and the processes of the state. And he has deliberately and pathologically abused his power without regard for the people he was elected to serve.”
Cullerton now says the impeachment trial also set a tone of bipartisan cooperation in the chamber. Both he and Radogno, the Senate Republican leader, had just assumed the top spots in their caucuses when the trial began. Illinois had not had an impeachment trial since the days of Abraham Lincoln, so the staffs had to work together to develop the procedures for how to handle the governor’s trial.
But Cullerton’s approach to leadership was a shift in both style and substance from that of his predecessors.
Jones, Cullerton’s Democratic predecessor, and James “Pate” Philip, a Republican who led the chamber through the 1990s, both took an old-school approach to governing, complete with smoky rooms. Philip was fond of puffing cigars in the Senate chamber and Jones was notorious for bumming smokes on the Senate floor before he reluctantly agreed to ban smoking in the chamber. Cullerton, on the other hand, sponsored a statewide smoking ban.
While Jones favored a “reward your friends and punish your enemies” style of leadership, Cullerton said he wanted to be a “small ‘d’ democrat,” says David Gross, who served as Cullerton’s chief of staff when he first became president.
Part of that meant working more closely with Republicans. Cullerton says he made that a priority, because he remembered what it was like to serve in the minority party for two years in the House and 10 years in the Senate.
But it also helped that both caucus leaders were new, Radogno says. “There had been a bitter, unproductive relationship between previous leaders,” she says. “We said, point blank, we’re not going to perpetuate that kind of dysfunction. It’s not good for the institution… We did try to conduct matters in a way that was obviously partisan, but at least respectful.”
One of the first changes Cullerton made was to revamp how one of the most powerful committees in the legislature worked. Under previous presidents, the Senate Rules Committee was a virtual graveyard of legislation. All bills had to pass through the Rules Committee before they were farmed out to other committees, but many proposals, especially those filed by lawmakers in the minority party, never made it out. Cullerton renamed the panel the Senate Committee on Assignments and instructed it to send bills to committees for hearings.
That created a lot of extra work for sponsors and committee chairs, but Cullerton wanted his members using the legislative process to solve problems, says Gross, his former chief of staff.
“All of a sudden, the Senate became a very active place for legislation to be heard, to be acted on and to be moved,” Gross says. The change in approach was even more striking, because, in the House, Madigan continued to use a system of centralized control for managing legislation.
Cullerton says he didn’t worry about losing control with the procedural change, because there were still plenty of ways to kill a bill. “That’s democracy, you know,” he says, “but it’s better than getting no hearing at all.”
And Democrats were firmly in control of the Senate throughout Cullerton’s tenure. As Obama took the White House, his old Democratic colleagues in the Illinois Senate had 37 seats in the 59-member chamber, enough to override a governor’s veto without the help of any Republican votes. They lost seats as the Tea Party gained ground in 2010, but held off the Republican wave that swept through most state legislatures that year. Since then, Cullerton says, his caucus has only lost two members in unsuccessful reelection bids.
Cullerton has tried to maintain a unified caucus, even when its numbers have swelled. Eric Madiar, the Senate parliamentarian early in Cullerton’s presidency, says Cullerton would encourage free-ranging conversations during caucus meetings. Cullerton would usually lay out the issue to be decided and the approach he thought would be best. Then, senators would debate their strategy, often in lengthy discussions. “Often,” Madiar says, “Cullerton’s way would be the way we would go. They would see he’s pointing in a direction that makes sense, not just politically but pragmatically. It’s a very inclusive type of leadership.”
How exactly did the Senate Democrats build such a sizable majority? Cullerton says it’s mostly a matter of changing demographics in Illinois and good candidate recruitment. The caucus has emphasized recruiting women to run as candidates, particularly in the suburbs. That’s one reason why women now make up nearly half (17 of 40 seats) of the caucus. The presidency of Donald Trump has helped drive suburban voters to Democratic candidates, even in former Republican strongholds like DuPage County. But, he notes, Trump makes it harder for Democrats to win downstate. Cullerton has also been willing to spend heavily on tight races, in some cases even going in debt.
But Radogno, the former Republican leader, says there’s more to it than that. For one, Republican primary voters have often nominated candidates who are too conservative for the district they’re running in, so those candidates have lost in the general election. Plus, she says, just being in the majority makes it easier for the Democrats to raise money from political donors. And, of course, the Democratic majority is cemented in place because Democrats drew the district lines following the 2010 Census, giving them a built-in advantage for a decade.
Cullerton chafes at what he calls the “myth of the map.” When Republican Bruce Rauner first ran for governor in 2014, Cullerton says, Rauner won majorities in 35 Senate districts and two-thirds of the state’s congressional districts. (Not all state Senate seats were up for election that year, though.) “We drew fair maps that are competitive, and that’s why we have the potential to have as many as we get,” he says. “We don’t just take care of safe districts for 35 incumbents. There’s been demographic changes, but the maps themselves were extremely fair.”
There’s no doubt that Cullerton is a partisan Democrat who relishes his caucus’ electoral victories. But Gross, his former chief of staff, says Cullerton’s focus quickly shifted from politics to policy. “When the elections were over, he wanted to govern,” Gross says. That was “consistently an irritation” between Cullerton and Madigan, Gross says. The conventional wisdom at the capitol is that the speaker is always viewing the proceedings of the House with an eye toward what they could mean for the next election.
Confrontation and collaboration
Gov. Pat Quinn took the place of Blagojevich after the impeachment trial, and Quinn worked better with the Democrats who controlled the legislature than his predecessor. The new governor could usually be counted on to sign bills passed by Democrats. Cullerton used the opportunity to start bipartisan negotiations over a public works program, the first in the state in a decade.
But the state’s finances were a wreck following the Great Recession, and making up for plummeting revenue while contending with ballooning pension payments became a major concern for lawmakers and the new governor. In the Senate, Madiar crafted an approach that he argued would reduce pension costs without running afoul of the state constitution’s protections of those benefits for state employees. Cullerton built support for the idea in his caucus, and the Senate passed a bill that used Madiar’s proposal. But none of the other caucuses bought into the idea, and the House passed a measure to cut benefits instead. Cullerton reluctantly agreed to go along with it, even though he thought the bill was unconstitutional. Quinn signed the bill, but the Illinois Supreme Court later struck it down.
The state’s fiscal woes grew even worse after Rauner took office. Rauner demanded that the legislature pass laws that would have weakened labor unions before he would agree to reinstate an income tax increase that had recently expired. Rauner pushed other proposals specifically designed to weaken Madigan, too. “It was almost as if he said, ‘Vote against your core principles, and for your reward, I’ll let you pass a tax increase,’” Cullerton said at the time. “This idea of holding the budget hostage didn’t work.”
As the stalemate wore on, Radogno approached Cullerton about the idea of fashioning a budget of their own, without Madigan or Rauner. The idea was that the Senate plan would be the blueprint for a larger compromise that would end the standoff. “I felt very comfortable saying to him, ‘This is bad for everyone. Let’s see if we in the Senate could come up with something,’” she says.
The negotiations over the “grand bargain” stretched on for months. The Republicans would have to support a tax increase, but Democrats had to make concessions that angered some of their core supporters, too. They talked about freezing property taxes and making business-friendly changes to the state’s worker’s compensation system. “We got a lot of good ideas from Republicans on how to balance the budget, because they weren’t trying to embarrass us, they were just trying to balance the budget,” Cullerton says.
Cullerton and Radogno toured the state, appearing before editorial boards to outline their plan. They held a hearing together, which left some lobbyists in the awkward position of opposing legislation supported by the leaders of both caucuses.
The deal broke down because Rauner intervened. “The governor’s office did not think it was enough,” Radogno says. “I think that was foolish in hindsight. And he literally threatened members.” Senate Democrats passed their own budget instead, without the provisions the Republicans had insisted on. That shifted attention to the House, where Democrats did not have the supermajority needed to pass the budget. Eventually, a small group of Republicans teamed up with Democrats there to pass a budget and end the two-year standoff. By that time, though, Radogno decided to leave the legislature in frustration.
Cullerton, meanwhile, says the bipartisan cooperation has continued under Rauner’s successor, Gov. JB Pritzker. Republicans supported legislation to expand gambling in the state, along with another capital plan. In the final days of this year’s legislative session, Cullerton says he hammered out last-minute deals with House Republican Leader Jim Durkin, too.
As Cullerton prepares to retire from the legislature to focus on his law practice as a partner at Thompson Coburn, he’s come under increased scrutiny for how he’s handled members of his own caucus who encountered legal trouble. Sen. Tom Cullerton, whom the Senate president describes as a third cousin once removed from him, was indicted in August for taking a no-show job with the Teamsters. He pleaded not guilty, and his trial has been set for next summer. But he remains in the state Senate. Federal agents raided the Capitol offices of Sen. Martin Sandoval in September, but Sandoval only recently announced he would leave the Senate at the end of the year. Sandoval has not been charged with a crime.
The treatment of the senators comes in stark contrast to how Madigan, the House speaker, reacted when federal authorities charged Rep. Luis Arroyo with trying to bribe a state senator. Madigan convened a special committee to determine whether Arroyo should be expelled from the House, and Arroyo resigned hours before the committee was scheduled to meet.
Cullerton, who once worked as a public defender, says in the case of his distant cousin, “we’re obligated to assume he’s not guilty,” because he pleaded not guilty. “What does it mean to be presumed innocent and then be punished because you were charged?” the Senate president asks. Meanwhile, Sandoval hasn’t even been charged, Cullerton points out. “I don’t know what I was supposed to do. There was all this push back on we should take him off the (transportation) committee. But he was chairman of a committee that wasn’t meeting,” Cullerton says. Sandoval eventually resigned from the committee and then from the Senate on his own. “He didn’t need me to do that,” Cullerton says.
Even though the scandals may be dominating the headlines now, Radogno, the former Republican leader, says the two “overriding” characteristics that she associates with Cullerton are his policy work and his “respect for the institution” of the Senate. “I admire his leadership style,” Radogno says. “It was a great fit for me, and we worked well together. It was an experience that I’m very happy to have had.”
Daniel C. Vock
Dan is a journalist based in Washington, D.C., who has covered state and local governments around the country for Governing magazine and Stateline (a project of the Pew Center on the States). He began his career in the Illinois Capitol as a statehouse reporter for the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin. His work has also appeared in Illinois Times, WIRED, Education Dive and other outlets. Dan led a team of Governing reporters that produced a 2019 series called "Segregated in the Heartland," which examined local governments' role in perpetuating racial divides in housing in downstate Illinois.
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