Future of the Democratic Party in Illinois: Internal bickering, keeping grasp on power
The senior U.S. senator has feuded with the governor over who controls the state Democratic Party. The governor and state Senate president have clashed over who would lead the chamber. The mayor and governor didn’t see eye-to-eye on pandemic restrictions. And the mayor is battling the state's attorney over violent crime.
Illinois Democrats have bickered amongst themselves over the barest of political slights and serious public policy. So far, however, they haven’t paid a political price for those internal fights.
The party maintains control of state government following a brief four years of Republicans holding the governor’s mansion. Going forward, Democrats are in charge of redrawing legislative boundaries, likely ensuring they keep the General Assembly for the next decade. On the other side of the aisle, former President Donald Trump continues to dominate the Republican Party, potentially relegating the Illinois GOP to out-of-power status for years.
Unlike the clashes of much the last two decades, Democrats at the state level have gotten on the same page long enough to approve the party's agenda, from a statewide capital plan and gambling expansion to recreational marijuana and a clean energy bill.
“When we are producing results, whatever conflicts might exist fall by the wayside,” Illinois Senate President Don Harmon said. “Look, some conflict is healthy to the process. It yields better results. The problem is when you have conflict for nothing more than the sake of conflict. We’ve all moved past that. We’ve learned from the stalemates and dysfunction.”
That’s certainly the party’s messaging these days. There’s a Twitter hashtag #ildemsdeliver. A billboard along Interstate 57 near a major south suburban construction project declares “Democrats are fixing roads and bridges across Illinois. #ildemsdeliver”
But big tests loom in the years ahead. Internal clashes are likely to continue amid an aging out of veteran politicians, a continuing establishment-progressive philosophical divide and elections next year and in 2023. There’s also an ongoing federal corruption investigation into former House Speaker Michael Madigan’s operation and the potential for backlash against a sweeping criminal justice reform bill as Chicago shootings rise. In the short term, President Joe Biden’s handling of Afghanistan and stumbles on getting his domestic agenda approved could result in a mid-term doldrum for a party that sometimes has trouble mustering turnout in non-presidential years.
Turnover, division and diversity
For decades, political power in Illinois flowed through Madigan, who doubled as state party chairman. Now he’s gone, felled by the investigation and how he handled a #MeToo scandal at the Capitol. It’s part of a wave of old white Chicago politicians aging out or being put on ice by the feds: Ald. Edward Burke is under indictment. Former Ald. Richard Mell retired. Ald. Michael Zalewski became a lobbyist and was entangled in the Madigan-ComEd scandal. Ald. Pat O’Connor lost a re-election bid.
Even those not facing such investigatory scrutiny are facing Father Time. U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin turns 77 next month and would be approaching 82 if he sought a sixth term in 2026. U.S. Rep. Danny Davis is 80. U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky is 77, while U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush is almost 75.
When politicians retire, pent up ambition gets released and can result in messy primaries. The Democratic Party is a quilt of various groups that often identify as something else first. Among them: organized labor, trial lawyers, Black voters, Latino voters, abortion rights and LGBTQ advocates, environmentalists, gun control advocates, progressives and Democratic Socialists. Sometimes those interests collide. The energy bill, for example, took months longer to come together as labor unions and environmentalists were on opposite sides and Gov. J.B. Pritzker tried to navigate a complicated issue while still delivering on his campaign pledge.
Those intra-party dynamics are on display in the already contentious Illinois secretary of state’s primary campaign in the wake of Jesse White’s decision not to seek a seventh term. Chicago City Clerk Anna Valencia is looking to move up, as are Alds. Pat Dowell and David Moore. Former Illinois Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias is trying for a political comeback a decade after losing a U.S. Senate race. As state party chairman, Madigan might have tried to broker a deal to keep the peace, but this time it’s an open-seat contest where the field could still grow --- candidate filing isn’t until March ahead of a late June 2022 primary election.
And in the newly released map of the state’s congressional districts that could result in Democrats winning as many as 14 of the 17 seats, the revised boundaries could spur unexpected primary challengers, even if the seats themselves remain tilted Democratic. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has already been enlisted to boost fundraising efforts for one of her longtime allies, Congressman Danny Davis, who faces spirited opposition.
Turnover has been the name of the game for the last decade. Earlier this year, the Chicago Tribune reported that more than two-thirds of the city’s 34 Illinois House seats and three-fourths of the 18 Senate seats have new occupants. The Chicago City Council has seen all but 15 of the 50 wards turn over since 2011, the Tribune noted.
Clash of moderates and progressives
The Democratic churn in part has been driven by an ideological split between moderates and progressives in the party. Aldermen went from fighting against --- and then allowing --- Walmart’s entry into the city’s retail scene in the mid-2000s over union opposition to seeing the first Democratic Socialist join their ranks in 2015 when Carlos Ramirez-Rosa defeated a three-term incumbent. Today, there are six Democratic Socialist aldermen and one state senator, and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders saw surprising popularity in Illinois during his 2016 presidential run. Beyond that, last year, progressive Marie Newman ousted Blue Dog Democratic Rep. Dan Lipinski, who’d been in office since 2005 after his father, Bill, had held the seat since 1983.
There have been limits on the progressives’ progress. The 2020 killing of George Floyd, a Black man, by a white Minneapolis cop spurred strong street protests, but loud calls to defund the police in Chicago failed to gain traction among Mayor Lori Lightfoot and aldermen.
Now, with city shootings and carjackings under the microscope, aldermen spent a recent budget hearing calling for more cops for their wards. Ald. Rossana Rodriguez, a Democratic Socialist who represents the 33rd Ward, lamented that as a failure “to think outside the punishment box.”
Aldermen asked “to bring back policies from the 80s and 90s. Policies that left us with mass incarceration of Black and Brown people and failed to combat violence and crime,” she said. “We need evidence-based strategies to reduce violence.”
On the state level, Democrats have touted this year’s approval of a wide-ranging criminal justice reform law that would end cash bail in 2023. The measure also would require police across Illinois to wear body cameras within a few years and make it easier to file misconduct complaints against cops.
Democrats credited momentum following Floyd’s murder at the hands of police with winning approval. The state’s Republicans, including top donor Ken Griffin, already have signaled that they intend to make the legislation’s finer points a major campaign issue next year. Headline-grabbing shootouts in the city and Democratic finger-pointing over them could make GOP criticisms an easier sell to voters. Painting Democrats as soft on crime also is part of the national Republican playbook, themes that could surface in suburban congressional races and possibly a pair of Illinois Supreme Court contests.
Democratic state Sen. Robert Peters, who has passed several criminal justice reform bills, said he fears “the rise of Tough on Crime 2.0.”
Democratic primaries, remap
Beyond the secretary of state’s contest, the Cook County ballot is expected to have at least two Democratic primary battles.
First-term Assessor Fritz Kaegi defeated Democratic establishment veteran Joe Berrios in 2018, then saw a Madigan-controlled House block his efforts at winning reforms of the property tax system. Kaegi also had some missteps, and some of the changes he’s put in place have shifted the tax burden away from homeowners and onto businesses. Now Kari Steele, board president at the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District, is running against Kaegi in next year’s assessor primary. Kaegi had $1 million on hand to start the summer (and still owes himself $2 million from his 2018 campaign). Steele is just starting to raise money.
Sheriff Tom Dart is seeking a fifth term, but faces a challenge from Carmen Navarro Gercone, who used to work in a key role in the office before becoming a top aide to Circuit Court Clerk Iris Martinez. It could be Dart’s first test in years. Dart hasn’t been raising much money, though he did have more than $550,000 on hand to start July. Navarro Gercone has the backing of Martinez, who has been supported by lobbyist Victor Reyes in last year’s court clerk contest and the old Hispanic Democratic Organization as a state lawmaker. The Cook County Democratic Party endorsement could be up for grabs --- the organization is still chaired by County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, who has clashed with Dart.
Statewide, Republicans are trying to find a governor candidate to take on Pritzker. The first-term governor will be well-funded and can appeal to some suburban swing voters with how he handled the pandemic, though Pritzker’s restrictions are unlikely to play well in much of Downstate. Down the ballot, the GOP has struggled for years to find strong candidates to take on Democrats in statewide contests.
As 2022 jockeying unfolds, Chicago aldermen are trying to redraw ward boundaries for the 2023 City Council elections. The new census showed that the city’s Black population has continued to decline, while the city’s Latino population has kept rising. Latino political leaders already have signaled they intend to press for more than the current 13 majority-Latino wards as part of the remap. Black leaders have said they’re seeking to maintain the 18 majority-Black wards, in part by reducing the racial makeup of wards from, say, 80% to 60%. It’s a high-stakes process with the potential to result in grudges and hard feelings.
“We definitely have a way to draw 18 majority-African American wards in the city of Chicago. It can be done,” Ald. Jason Ervin, 28th, told “The Fran Spielman Show” last month. “The question is: Is the will of the council there to represent the African American community in a manner in which it should be represented in our city?”
Forty-one aldermen must vote to approve a new map or competing proposals go before voters, which means a deal must be cut to avoid a winner-take-all scenario. So far, it’s unclear who on the council can put together an acceptable compromise, which was what happened following the 2000 and 2010 censuses, but not in 1992, when the maps went to referendum.
The Chicago Redistricting Advisory Commission, which is made of reform groups and community organizations, has an independently drawn map it wants put before voters. Like all map proposals, at least 10 aldermen must support placing it on the referendum ballot.
Until there are new ward boundaries, it’s also difficult to say what the political dynamics will be in the aldermanic contests. Will the progressive wave continue or will there be a shift back toward centrism? Does the Chicago Teachers Union get involved backing candidates?
Lightfoot’s future as mayor
While aldermen jockey behind the scenes and peer at computers in the map room, one of the biggest questions for Democrats is who and how many will line up to challenge Lightfoot for mayor in 2023.
She’s considered politically vulnerable by many analysts. Lightfoot twice lost the Magnificent Mile (and once lost neighborhood shopping areas) to looting during last year’s civic unrest. The list of Lightfoot’s feuds is lengthy, and she’s seen a lot of staff turnover. She’s alienated progressives unsatisfied with her performance on reforming the Chicago Police Department. Violent crime is viewed as out of control, and taking place in spots once viewed as immune from it.
But as the old adage goes, you can’t beat someone with no one. In 2019, Lightfoot parlayed the right message at the right time to score 17.54% to advance out of the 14-candidate first round before trouncing Preckwinkle by nearly 3-to-1 in the runoff. So the mix of candidates on the February 2023 ballot could be a big factor. Multiple candidates running to the left of Lightfoot could split the vote, as could multiple centrist or center-right candidates. Will Chicago’s business community put up someone else? Does Preckwinkle back someone to gain political payback by proxy?
For her part, Lightfoot’s camp is counting on support from Black voters and keeping most of her base of North Side progressives, including LGBTQ voters, from the 2019 campaign. Lightfoot has nearly $1.2 million on hand but hasn’t started raising much money yet. The mayor points to approval of a $15 minimum wage, an investment program for some South and West Side neighborhoods, winning approval of a money-generating Chicago casino where predecessors failed and ethics reforms as key accomplishments.
“In our city, we have had a lot of challenges but I think the intensity and the directedness that the mayor has had toward some of our most challenging communities is something that we’ve seen no mayor do in our city,” Ervin, who leads the council Black Caucus, recently told the Sun-Times.
Heading into the future, looking at the past
Illinois Democrats head into the future after a period where they briefly worried about then-Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner winning a second term and Trump seeking re-election, then found Madigan suddenly out of the picture. The ensuing power vacuum led to a new House speaker in Emanuel “Chris” Welch.
It also resulted in a spat between U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin and Gov. Pritzker over the new party chair. Durbin spent years building up the Illinois Democratic County Chairs’ Association when Madigan didn’t develop much of a state party apparatus, while Pritzker spent hundreds of millions of dollars on his 2018 campaign for governor, money to other Democrats, and a failed 2020 statewide graduated income-tax referendum. Durbin supported U.S. Rep. Robin Kelly for the party post she eventually won, while Pritzker backed 8th Ward Ald. Michelle Harris.
Tension between Harmon, the Senate president, and Pritzker isn’t too far under the surface. When then-Senate President John Cullerton announced his retirement in late 2019, Oak Park’s Harmon won the internal Senate Democratic contest to succeed him. Pritzker favored Sen. Kimberly Lightford of Maywood. Before that, the Oak Park Indivisible chapter in Harmon’s backyard endorsed then-state Sen. Dan Biss over Pritzker in the 2018 Democratic governor primary.
With Illinois Republicans holding no statewide offices and engaged in their own internal battles, the Democrats’ prime obstacle in coming years might be themselves.
“Hubris might be the biggest threat to the Democrats,” observed one veteran political strategist. Coupled with Ken Griffin’s proven willingness to neutralize Pritzker’s wealth advantage, what on paper looks like heavy odds favoring a deep blue wave at the ballot box could yet result in electoral performance below expectations.
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