Monday, August 18, 2008

The start of a new beginning

Gov. Rod Blagojevich is losing his biggest ally in Senate President Emil Jones Jr., who announced his upcoming retirement this afternoon. When his term ends in January, he'll end a 35-year career in the Illinois General Assembly.

Jones' departure further challenges Blagojevich in advancing his agenda. “[Jones] certainly was his No. 1 ally. He was the Gen. Patton to his presidency,” says Sen. Donne Trotter, a Senate majority caucus whip. He describes Jones as a wartime leader. “We've literally been at war for the past few years. So he's been a field general, and he's going to be hard to replace.”

Election of a new Senate president requires a majority vote by chamber members and results in a two-year term. Numerous Senate Democrats are in line trying to win the position, which controls a leadership team and determines the flow of legislation, including which measures get called for debate.

Under Jones, the Senate Democrats increased membership from 27 members to an exceptional 37 members, while Republicans have just 22. Yet Jones' caucus includes subgroups with diverse interests and allegiances, challenging his ability to utilize his “super majority” on politically sensitive initiatives.

Jones also struggled to accomplish his long-standing passion of education funding reform, although he did team with Blagojevich last year to grant the largest single-year increase for education funding by $400 million. But that's not the reform he sought for so many years. He previously supported relieving local property taxes and relying more on the state income taxes to fund public education. He changed positions in 2006 to support Blagojevich's proposal to levy gross receipts tax on business profits. Jones supported it, in part, because Blagojevich repeatedly promised to veto income or sales tax increases.

But Jones' legacy does include being the longest serving Democratic Caucus leader since 1970. He also championed such social justice issues as requiring interrogations to be videotaped in death penalty cases.

And life will go on in the Illinois Senate, potentially with one of Jones' proteges at the helm. Another of his accomplishments as a leader, Trotter says, is that he allowed his members to grow. “He had the special ability of seeing the strengths of every individual and has allowed them to flourish,” especially U.S. Sen. Barack Obama, who's slated to accept the Democratic presidential nomination within a week. But those who are gearing up in an attempt to lead the state Senate have been well-trained and are well-positioned to take over, he says.

Names in the mix include some of Jones' soldiers: Sen. John Cullerton of Chicago, Sen. Rickey Hendon of Chicago, Sen. Terry Link of Waukegan and Sen. James Clayborne Jr. of Belleville.

Sen. Don Harmon of Oak Park isn't in Jones' leadership team, but he has led some high-profile pieces of legislation, including ethics reforms and pension obligation bonds. Other legislators with independent streaks also have shown potential interest. Sen. Jeff Schoenberg of Evanston issued a release saying he hopes to be a "major part" of an effort for more transparent leadership that works towards consensus.

Senate Republicans are hoping the new leader, whoever it is, opens the door to improved communication. “We've always been willing to walk through the door, but the Senate president and the governor have walked in lockstep together,” says Patty Schuh, spokeswoman for Senate Minority Leader Frank Watson. “And that has, unfortunately, not meant good things for Illinois.”

The Blagojevich-Jones alliance pushed for expanded health care, increased education funding and increased minimum wage, all of which Blagojevich said wouldn't have happened without Jones. Yet many of their other proposals have stalled in the House under Speaker Michael Madigan.

Even the House could feel a fresh, new-start feeling when the new legislative session starts in January, says Rep. Gary Hannig, a Litchfield Democrat and deputy majority leader. “There will be, sort of a, 'It's a new day. Let's start over. Let's be positive about it.”

Selecting a new leader, however, will be a politically charged event. The Senate Democratic Caucus must select someone who can serve as a field general in an ongoing war, as well as someone who can balance the need to compromise with Madigan and Blagojevich at the same time he or she advocates for the platforms and the beliefs of such a diverse caucus.

We'll have plenty more about the potential replacements in the coming weeks and months.

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