Leadership Vote Bodes Well for House GOP Print
Commentary/Politics - Illinois Politics
Written by Rich Miller   
Monday, 09 September 2013 12:35

After the Illinois House Republicans met late last month in Springfield to elect a new caucus leader, several members gathered at a local watering hole to toast their top dog, Representative Jim Durkin (R-Western Springs).

Notably, several members who backed the candidacy of Representative Raymond Poe (R-Springfield) showed up as well and heartily shared in the festivities.

And so a leadership battle that for a while looked to be heading down a bitterly negative path ended with smiles all around. Durkin managed to pull off the impossible.

After the failed 1991 ouster attempt of House GOP Leader Lee Daniels, 11 of the 13 coup-plotters fled the House within two years, either for the Senate or for other jobs. They had no choice: Retribution was in the air.

When Daniels announced he’d be stepping aside a decade later, a months-long feud erupted between Representatives Tom Cross and Art Tenhouse, with the Downstater Tenhouse coming out on the losing end. The fight got personal and emotional, and lots of members were put in highly uncomfortable positions.

The memories of those fights are strong with those who were around back then, and veterans on both sides have tried to help steer this battle away from the abyss ever since Cross announced that he would be stepping aside and running for state treasurer.

Durkin had a reputation among some of his fellow House Republicans as being aloof and even kind of a jerk; his tendencies as the former Cook County prosecutor have never completely left him. But Durkin patiently traveled the state, meeting with anybody who would sit down with him, and eventually managed to assuage those fears. As a result, he walked into the caucus meeting with far more than the 24 votes he needed to win.

Poe gave what many members said was the speech of his life during the meeting. He passionately argued for peace and unity while putting Durkin’s name into nomination. Durkin was elected by acclamation.

Durkin had been a member of Cross’ leadership team, but he’s much better known as being policy-oriented. He’s also politically ambitious. He lost a U.S. Senate race in 2002 to Dick Durbin and chaired both of John McCain’s Illinois presidential campaigns. Durkin was gearing up for an attorney-general bid when Cross blindsided him with his own desire for the office. Durkin almost immediately switched gears and focused on the leadership job, which helped box Cross out and forced him to find another job after Lisa Madigan decided to stay put.

Durkin and his team have promised there will be no retribution. There’s a desperate need for unity in that caucus, and pretty much everybody gets it. They’re in a terrible spot and have few avenues back to semi-relevance. They need to raise a ton of money, find several more candidates, and get their collective act together.

Last year’s elections resulted in a Democratic landslide and a super-majority in both legislative chambers. Durkin has to somehow find a way to knock the Democrats back a bit.

Suburban Cook County turns out to be one of the biggest winners with Durkin’s victory. Durkin represents half of Senate Republican Leader Christine Radogno’s district, the second time in recent memory that both GOP legislative leaders hail from the same district. (Daniels and Senate President Pate Philip were the last to do that.) Despite losing tons of seats to the Democrats over the years, the Cook County Republicans now have more legislative power than they’ve probably ever had. Radogno heaped praise on Durkin after his election in a way she never did with Tom Cross.

An improved relationship with the Senate GOP is only the beginning, however. Minority leaders need a backstop to help them deal with often-vengeful, partisan majorities. Back in the day, Daniels would often go to Democratic Senate President Phil Rock for help when House Speaker Michael Madigan shut him out. Cross and Senate President John Cullerton have had a horrible relationship over the years.

One of Durkin’s first calls after his election was to Cullerton. He said they had a friendly conversation. Dealing with Madigan will be a whole lot easier for Durkin if he has Cullerton’s occasionally sympathetic ear.

If he can suppress those prosecutorial-attitude issues, work harder than he ever has, and stay focused and calm while Madigan rattles his cage, Durkin has what it takes to be an effective leader. Time will tell, but, so far, this looks like a good move by the House GOP.

Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax (a daily political newsletter) and CapitolFax.com.

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