A Look at Illinois

Posted March 22, 2004 at 5:20pm

This is the first of a two-part series looking at the future of Illinois politics. Today’s installment focuses on the Chicago area. Next week’s column will examine downstate political players.

With little evidence to suggest that the prevailing Democratic winds that swept the Land of Lincoln in 2002 have since died down, last week’s Senate primary results left state Democratic leaders even more energized and optimistic about their prospects in the November elections. [IMGCAP(1)]

Emboldened by the numbers for both parties in a low-turnout election, Democrats note that more votes were cast for state Sen. Barack Obama, who crushed six primary opponents to win the Democratic nomination, than were cast overall in the Republican primary. Obama ended up getting about three times the number of votes Republican nominee Jack Ryan garnered.

If this foreshadows a rerun of 2002, when Democrats broke the GOP’s 26-year chokehold on the governorship and captured all but one of Illinois’ statewide offices, Democratic leaders would not mind.

Still, the party’s recent statewide success has thus far not translated to the Congressional delegation, where the state’s loss of one seat during the previous cycle’s reapportionment left Republicans with a 10-to-9 Member advantage over their Democratic counterparts.

And while Obama is slightly favored to pick up the Senate seat in November, there doesn’t appear to be any pickup prospects for Democrats in the House, with the absence of any truly competitive races on the horizon.

While the Democratic base in the state is still firmly rooted in Chicago, a number of potential retirements in coming years in the surrounding suburban districts could prove to be an interesting test of the party’s newfound strength.

Obama’s wide margin of victory — he took 53 percent compared to 24 percent for his closest opponent — is credited

largely to his ability to win a large percentage of votes not only in Chicago but also in the Windy City’s suburban counties.

Looking at the current delegation, which is home to the longest-serving Republican in the House and the chamber’s second-oldest Member, the potential retirement of three of the state’s GOP veterans before the next round of redistricting is being closely watched by both parties. And all three — Reps. Henry Hyde, Phil Crane and Dennis Hastert, the current Speaker — represent suburban Chicago districts.

One name mentioned as a potential candidate for any of the three seats (in Illinois candidates do not have to reside in the district to run) is state Sen. Steve Rauschenberger (R), who surged to a third-place finish in the Republican Senate primary last week. Rauschenberger, who despite a good deal of institutional support was mired in single digits in late polling, ended the race with 20 percent of the vote.

While Rauschenberger’s Elgin home is in Hastert’s district, the most logical seat for Rauschenberger could be Hyde’s 6th district, largely made up of suburban DuPage County. Rauschenberger’s state Senate district covers territory in all three Congressional districts.

Hyde, who at 79 is the second-oldest House Member behind Rep. Ralph Hall (R-Texas), took over the International Relations gavel in 2000 and his tenure will expire at the end of 2006. That fact, coupled with Hyde’s recent health troubles, will put him toward the top of the retirement watch list next Congress.

Aside from Rauschenberger, among the potential Republicans mentioned when Hyde leaves is current DuPage County Board Chairman Bob Schillerstrom and state Sens. Peter Roskam and Dan Cronin.

Roskam, elected to the state Senate in 2000 and now a Minority Whip, has run for Congress once before. In 1998 Roskam, then a state Representative, moved into the 13th district to run for an open seat. He won 40 percent in the primary, losing to now-Rep. Judy Biggert (R-Ill.), who won 45 percent.

DuPage County Board member Brien Sheahan (R) is also a young up and comer in the party who could make a Congressional run down the road.

Meanwhile, Crane’s 8th district is slightly more friendly territory for the GOP. The district is considered one of the two most Republican in the state, based largely on the fact that George W. Bush won 56 percent there in 2000 even as he lost Illinois by 12 points.

Among the rising GOP stars in the district viewed as having potential Congressional ambitions are Fred Foreman, a former Lake County state’s attorney and U.S. attorney who is now seeking a judgeship; state Rep. Mark Beaubien, a moderate; and Lake County Board member Judy Martini.

The district is anchored in Lake County, and most of the countywide elected officials might look at a run when Crane, the longest-serving Republican in the House, vacates the seat. Crane won a special election in 1969 to succeed then-Rep. Donald Rumsfeld (R), now Defense secretary.

Also mentioned for Crane’s seat is Gary Skoien, a one-time aide to former Gov. James Thompson, who recently assumed the helm of the Palatine Township GOP. Skoien challenged Crane twice in primaries in the early 1990s. In 1992, Crane beat Skoien 55 percent to 45 percent.

Skoien didn’t fare as well in 1994, when he took 21 percent in the three-way GOP primary against Crane and then-state Sen. Peter Fitzgerald (R), who is retiring from the U.S. Senate this year after serving one term.

Al Salvi, an abortion opponent and trial lawyer who spent $1 million of his own money to win the 1996 Senate primary, is also mentioned in the 8th. Salvi eventually lost to then-Rep. and now-Sen. Dick Durbin (D), 56 percent 41 percent.

Democrats, meanwhile, are guardedly optimistic that business consultant Melissa Bean will be able to improve on her 2002 performance against Crane. Last cycle she won 43 percent to the incumbent’s 57 percent. Regardless, look for Bean, who is only 42, to be toward the top of the list of Democrats likely to jump in when Crane vacates the seat.

While the odds of Hyde and Crane retiring in the next three cycles are great, it is much less clear when Hastert’s 14th district might become open. At the beginning of the 108th Congress, the GOP leadership decided to abolish term limits on the Speakership. Still, most observers view it as unlikely that Hastert, who is 62, will remain in his post and in Congress for more than another decade.

Although the 14th district stretches from the Chicagoland suburbs across the state almost to the Mississippi River, the district’s population center is tipped heavily toward eastern Kane, Kendall and DuPage counties.

When Hastert does decide to leave, a crowded GOP primary field is likely to emerge. Among the local lawmakers mentioned as potential candidates are state Sen. Brad Burzynski and state Rep. Robert Pritchard, both of whom represent western parts of the district, and state Sen. Chris Lauzen, who represents Hastert’s home of Aurora and comes from the most ideologically conservative wing of the party. Pritchard, a former DeKalb County Board chairman, was appointed to his state House seat and just last week won a tight primary to retain the seat. Burzynski also represents territory in Rep. Don Manzullo’s (R) neighboring 16th district.

Newly elected state House Minority Leader Tom Cross (R) is viewed as one of the party’s brightest rising stars and is also mentioned as a possible contender for Hastert’s seat, although he could be considered too moderate to win a crowded primary. Kane County Board member Karen Steve-McConnaughey (R), who is favored to win the race for board chairman in November, could also be a viable contender as potentially the only woman in the race.

With close ties to the Speaker’s inner circle, Hastert’s current district director, Bryan Harbin, is also mentioned as a potential candidate. Hastert’s son, Ethan, also appears to have future political ambitions. He currently attends Northwestern University Law School.

Among Democratic rising stars in Hastert’s home area, state Rep. Linda Chapa LaVia stands out.

In Manzullo’s 16th district, state Rep. Jack Franks is viewed as one of a handful of Democrats who could compete for the GOP-leaning seat.

In Biggert’s district, Kirk Billiard, the new DuPage GOP chairman, is considered a future candidate for Congress.

Meanwhile, the city of Chicago remains a Democratic bastion where the influence of the Daley machine is still great despite the resounding defeat last week of state Comptroller Dan Hynes (D), the machine-backed candidate in the Senate primary. But the machine’s power is still considered greater in aldermanic and Cook County elections than it is in Congressional contests.

While few of the city’s Congressional Representatives are expected to go anywhere anytime soon, there are still a few names to watch.

One is state Sen. James Meeks (D), who is close to Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.). He ousted former state Sen. Bill Shaw, Jackson’s political nemesis.

State Sen. Jeff Schonberg (D) is also highly regarded. A leader in the Jewish community, his district overlaps with those of Reps. Mark Kirk (R) and Jan Schakowsky (D).

Alderman Manny Flores (D), who ousted a machine-backed incumbent, is a young and talented official who is seen as a possible candidate some day for the seat of Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D).

Cook County Commissioner Forrest Claypool (D), who works part-time for Chicago-based Democratic media consultant David Axlerod, is also mentioned for higher office.

Several Chicago-based Democrats who are already in statewide positions are mentioned as likely future candidates for higher offices. The list includes Hynes, who is just 35 and has plenty of time for voters to forget his loss to Obama, and first-term Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, who is 38.

Former state Rep. Tom Dart (D), who lost the state treasurer’s race in 2002, is also considered likely to run for higher office again.