Democrats: Gains in Legislature Translate to House Races

Posted January 28, 2008 at 6:49pm

Second of two parts

Illinois Senate Majority Caucus Chairman Terry Link (D) doesn’t mince words with his plebes. His first years in the Senate were in the minority, and he knows well the frustrations of the political wilderness.

[IMGCAP(1)]“There are a lot of us in leadership who served our penance in the minority; so when you’ve been in the minority, you’re damned if you ever want to go back [there] again,” Link said. “So whenever you see someone get complacent, you remind them of what it was like.”

“We start telling them horror stories,” he continued. “We remind them of certain people who sat back and didn’t work — ‘Boom!’ They were gone.’”

Unlike Republicans in the Land of Lincoln, whose developmental program continues to suffer from years of jailed ex-Gov. George Ryan’s (R) inability to build a farm team, Link and other Illinois Democratic leaders are confident that their long-haul approach continues to consistently groom a steady supply of federal office holders.

Case in point: Sen. Barack Obama (D). The presidential candidate served eight years in the Illinois state Senate before coming to Washington, D.C., in 2005.

Not convinced? State Senate Majority Leader Debbie Halverson (D) quickly cleared the Democratic field for the shot at retiring Rep. Jerry Weller’s (R) exurban Southside Chicago district. She’s raised more than $425,000 since declaring her candidacy last fall.

State Democratic insiders agree that Obama’s — and perhaps Halverson’s soon-to-be — former Springfield stomping grounds continue to yield promising up-and-comers. Last cycle, three promising Democrats picked up Republican-held seats in the Illinois Senate: now-Sens. Michael Bond, Dan Kotowski and Michael Frerichs.

“The squad looks good,” Link said. “We picked up five new Senate seats [in 2006] and with a number of young [lawmakers] from various parts of the state.”

Bond, an insurance executive, cut his teeth on suburban education boards before winning his northwestern Chicagoland-based district in 2006 at the age of 37. His district, once considered impenetrable by Democrats, may now be theirs.

Link, who said Bond has “a brilliant future” and “is going to be around for a long time,” also said he and other party leaders not only provide Bond and other underclassmen with a steady drip of “when-I-was-a-boy” anecdotes, but also sacrifice plum committee spots and leadership roles for the sake of party longevity.

Bond sits on the state’s Senate appropriations panel and is the vice chairman of its transportation committee.

“He comes from the financial world, so we made sure he was on financial committees,” Link said. “Transportation is also a major issues in his district. He’s the vice chair of the transportation committee.”

“We found out their strong suits and worked with them,” Link continued. “Kotowski was the former head to a coalition against hand-gun violence. We tapped him to work on those types of bills, gave him those bills to carry and made sure those bills passed the Senate.”

Kotowski, a former state assemblyman, is a former executive director for the Illinois Council Against Handgun Violence. He now sits on the state Senate’s appropriations, human services and financial institutions panels.

Chicago-based Democratic consultant Greg Goldner said that Bond, Kotowski and Frerichs’ 2006 victories also prove that the party continues to adapt, creeping into traditionally Republican districts with appealing homegrown candidates.

“There are a lot of moderate Democrats who know how to win in traditional Republican strongholds,” Goldner said. “Three or four years ago I would have thought it was a Republican Party weakness, but now it’s Democrats that don’t fit the traditional profile.”

Goldner also named Chicago lawyer Kwame Raoul (D), who represents Obama’s former Southside state Senate district, as a promising up-and-comer in state politics. State Rep. Linda Chapa LaVia (D) was on the short list of Democrats who could have run to replace former Speaker Dennis Hastert (R). But she decided to skip the race in the suburban Chicago district, and self-funding scientist Bill Foster is the leading Democratic candidate there now.

Notre Dame-educated state Comptroller Dan Hynes, who turns 40 this year, is considered one of a small nonlegislative Democratic cadre of promising potential federal candidates. Despite substantial support from the Chicago Democratic machine, he lost the 2004 Senate primary to Obama.

Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan (D), too, may make a run for another statewide office, and state Veterans’ Affairs Director Tammy Duckworth (D), who narrowly lost a marquee open-seat House race last cycle to now-Rep. Peter Roskam (R), may also decide to brush herself off at some point and run for office again.

Also, Jay Footlik (D), a young former Clinton White House official, and consultant Dan Seals are on the Feb. 5 primary ballot in Rep. Mark Kirk’s (R) North Shore district. The primary loser is still expected to have a bright future in the state.

Kirk barely escaped a defeat last cycle by Seals, who was ignored by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. That won’t happen again this cycle.

State Senate President Emil Jones (D), who has served 25 years in the chamber and a decade more before that in the assembly, agreed with Link that freshman Frerichs is a “a nice young talented individual” who shows plenty of potential political muscle.

“We have quite a few like him,” Jones said. “We constantly reach out and grab young talented people.”

Link described Frerichs as “somebody to keep an eye on,” and said the caucus made sure to protect his seat by balancing the dichotomous needs of his district; Champaign, the state’s central home to the University of Illinois, is surrounded by farm land. Frerichs now sits on both the agriculture and higher-education panels.

Although the 15th district seat is held by Rep. Timothy Johnson (R), Democrats believe they can compete there some day, and Frerichs just may be the man for the job.

But with such a deep bench, political handouts run thin at times for Democrats, who control both chambers and the governor’s mansion.

So for party leaders, that means sorting through a lengthy calculus to determine who gets tax credits, whose name goes on a bill and, more importantly, whose doesn’t.

“We all represent different regions of the state and sometimes that representation runs in conflict with mine,” Jones said. “But … I try to pull them all together for the common good.”