A Look at Illinois

Posted March 29, 2004 at 6:37pm

This is the second of two parts on Illinois races.

While the Democratic Party has made large gains statewide in the Land of Lincoln during the past two years, the party’s newfound strength still remains largely untested outside of Chicago and its suburbs — in the area commonly referred to as “downstate.” [IMGCAP(1)]

Last cycle, when the state lost one House district due to reapportionment, Reps. John Shimkus (R) and David Phelps (D) were forced to square off in a reconfigured district heavily tilted toward the GOP. Phelps ran a spirited campaign but was eventually unable to overcome the demographics of a district that overwhelmingly voted for George W. Bush in the 2000 presidential election. Phelps lost the race, 55 percent to 45 percent.

Still, it is in that same district that Democrats may get the first opportunity to test whether some of their Chicagoland success will translate downstate, particularly in Shimkus’ south central 19th district.

There is wide speculation that Shimkus, first elected in 1996, may look to make a statewide run in 2006 (the office most often associated with his name is state treasurer).

“There will certainly be an abundance of those aspiring to run” to replace Shimkus, said John Gianulis, Rock Island County Democratic chairman and director of personnel in Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s (D) office.

One of the first Democratic names to surface could be that of state Rep. Jay Hoffman, who lost to Shimkus in 1996 by 1,238 votes.

Hoffman is from Collinsville, the county seat in Madison County just across the Mississippi River from St. Louis, where Shimkus grew up and once taught high school.

Hoffman, who has served in the Legislature since 1991, currently chairs the House Committee on Transportation and Motor Vehicles.

In 2002, he served as downstate director for Blagojevich’s gubernatorial campaign and has remained close to the governor’s inner circle ever since. In fact,

it was widely speculated that he would have been appointed state comptroller had current Comptroller Dan Hynes, who came in second in this month’s Democratic Senate primary, been successful in his Senate bid.

State Democrats believe that Hoffman, who ran in 1996 on an anti-abortion rights, anti-gun control and pro-balanced budget amendment platform, has the right profile to make another open seat race competitive, even though the reconfigured district is even more GOP friendly than before.

Another potential Democratic candidate in Shimkus’ 19th district is state Rep. Brandon Phelps, from Harrisburg.

Conversely, Republicans are hopeful about their chances of competing for the 17th district seat of Rep. Lane Evans (D) whenever the 11-term Congressman decides to give it up.

Among the Democrats mentioned for the seat are Phil Hare, Evans’ district director who grew up with the Congressman and has worked for him since he was first elected in 1982; Rock Island Mayor Mark Schwiebert; and state Sen. John Sullivan.

After beating an entrenched incumbent in 2002, Sullivan, 44, saw his political stock soar.

But perhaps the highest-profile name who could seek to replace Evans is Clarence Darrow, grandson and namesake of the famed attorney in the Scopes monkey trial and son of a retired judge and ex-legislator also named Clarence Darrow. The younger Darrow, who is known as Mike, just ran and lost a Democratic primary bid for the state House, but the 32-year-old former Marine officer and JAG attorney has plenty of political life left.

“He wants to get involved politically,” Gianulis said.

Meanwhile, Republicans are also banking on a competitive race to replace the only other downstate Democrat, Rep. Jerry Costello, when he decides to retire from his 12th district seat.

Two of the party’s younger rising stars in the East St. Louis-based district are state Rep. Mike Bost and Carbondale Mayor Brad Cole, either of whom could be Congressional material one day.

Although Rep. Tim Johnson (R) was just elected to his 15th district seat in 2000, state Rep. Chapin Rose (R), who just turned 30 in December, and state Sen. Dan Rutherford (R) in Bloomington are warming the bench in the state Legislature.

For Democrats in the Champaign area, state Rep. Naomi Jakobsson is viewed as a likeable up and comer. Jakobsson was elected in 2002 after serving for 12 years as Champaign County recorder.

Elsewhere in the state, look for both parties to keep an eye on the potential retirement of 16th district Rep. Don Manzullo (R) in coming years. Manzullo, a perpetual thorn in the side of his party’s leadership, will be forced to relinquish the gavel of the Small Business Committee at the end of 2006 and could look to exit then.

Rockford Mayor Doug Scott (D), a former state Representative who was close with Blagojevich when they served together in the state House, is a possible candidate there.

One knowledgeable Democrat in the state described Scott as “the type of mayor who spends a lot of his time in Springfield, continuing to build his relationships.”