Friday, October 31, 2008

Is Clayborne a long shot, or frontrunner, for Illinois Senate president post?

I have heard many people who think of themselves as knowledgeable observers of the local political scene who say that state Sen. James Clayborne is the biggest long shot of all the names tossed out as possibilities to become president of the Illinois Senate.

They say Clayborne’s name is only being mentioned to give the appearance that everybody from around Illinois is in the running. The reality is that a Chicago political person will wind up getting the post.

TO THESE PEOPLE, the only question is whether it will be an African-American senator who gets the leadership post (maintaining the idea of a black person as a leader to replace retiring Senate President Emil Jones of Chicago), or whether one of the Anglo legislators has a shot.

Yet if a recently compiled study of campaign contributions is any indication, Clayborne should not be dismissed so lightly.

The Illinois Campaign for Political Reform released a study this week that shows the senators considered to be in the running are trying to show their political clout by shifting more than $1 million from their own campaign funds to those of their colleagues who can use the financial assistance.

Clayborne, who hails from the portion of Illinois that thinks of St. Louis as their major city (he lives in Belleville), it turns out is the most generous.

HE HAS GIVEN $418,000 to other Democrats in the Illinois Senate – or about 40 percent of all the money transferred.

That could result in Clayborne having a lot of favors owed to him when the new Illinois Senate decides early next year who its new leader should be.

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that Clayborne has some explicit deal with the legislators who take money from his campaign fund that they MUST vote for him to be the new Senate president when the General Assembly that is elected in Tuesday’s elections convenes for the first time in January.

If he did have such a specific deal in place, we’d have U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald looking for a way to justify prosecuting a Southern Illinois pol in the federal court for Northern Illinois. It would be bribery.

ALL I’M SAYING is that Clayborne is getting his name out there among the 30-something people who matter (the Illinois Senate’s Democratic party caucus) when it comes to deciding who is the new Senate president.

Some of them are bound to have pleasant associations to the name “Clayborne” when they are put on the spot in January and asked to decide publicly (and with finality) who should be the Democrats’ leader – as well as leader of the entire Illinois Senate.

So writing off Clayborne as some sort of rural rube would be a mistake. This could very well become a case where those people on the Statehouse Scene from outside of Chicago could very well decide they want somebody who does not live in the Second City proper.

As confounding as that concept may be to those of us Chicagoans, it is a real attitude in Illinois government. There are times when Springfield-style politics is less about “Democrat vs. Republican” and is more “Chicago vs. Illinois.”

BUT IF THAT’S the case, then there is Chicago competition.

For that same Campaign for Political Reform study that showed Clayborne as a significant factor in helping legislators raise money for their campaigns showed state Sen. John Cullerton, D-Chicago, doing almost as well.

The study claims Cullerton has given other lawmakers $336,000 to help them in this campaign cycle.

So Cullerton becomes a political player for this position as well. That intrigues me because I always thought Cullerton should be considered the frontrunner for the leadership position (even though some political observers see black caucus members such as Donne Trotter or Rickey Hendon as the favorites if the Illinois Senate political fight becomes one between Chicago vs. the St. Louis-area).

CULLERTON HAS BEEN in the rank-and-file of the General Assembly since 1978, and having such a position would help cement his own role within the Cullerton family history. For when it comes to Chicago politics, the name “Cullerton” may very well be more historic and prestigious than that of “Daley.”

The Northwest Side’s 38th ward used to boast that it had been represented in the City Council by a Cullerton since the days just before the Chicago Fire, and there were times when more than one ward was represented in the City Council by a Cullerton.

In addition, P.J. Cullerton was a former assessor of Cook County.

The point in reciting this mini-family history is to show that John Cullerton (despite the anonymity of his political office to many Illinoisans) is not someone who is a political amateur – either in the ways of City Hall or the Statehouse Scene. He’s going to put up a fight to get the post (which would make a Cullerton one of the top political people not only in Illinois, but in his family tree as well).

IN FACT, IN reading the Campaign for Political Reform’s study, I must admit there was one thing that shocked me.

As I mentioned before, both Trotter of the South Side and Hendon of the West Side are talked about as being in the running to become state Senate president (and both men have indicated they’re interested in gaining the post).

Yet when the campaign study compiled a list of secondary candidates (those who have transferred from their campaign funds at least $10,000 to other legislators), neither Trotter nor Hendon were on it.

Could this mean that some political people are over-estimating the significance of Hendon and Trotter? Could it be that neither has the ability to gain the support needed to gain the leadership post?

OR COULD IT be that this factor of considering how much money a would-be Senate president transfers to other legislators is a factor that is being grossly overestimated in importance (if not altogether irrelevant)?

I don’t know the answer to those questions, but I am skeptical of the idea that either Hendon or Trotter are going to suddenly go away – regardless of what any study concludes.

For what it’s worth, the second-tier of would-be Senate president hopefuls (the guys who could become a compromise president if neither Cullerton nor Clayborne manages to gain enough support to win the post outright) includes Don Harmon of Oak Park, Jeffrey Schoenburg of Evanston and Terry Link of Waukegan, along with Ira Silverstein of Chicago, John Sullivan of Rushville and A.J. Wilhelmi of Joliet.

Probably the candidate who thinks most highly of himself in that group is Schoenburg, who has created a special fundraising committee called “Deep Blue Illinois” to distribute $60,000 to other legislators.

NOW WHY DOES any of this matter beyond the minds of a few political geeks who have nothing better to do than monitor government activity in Springfield?

Keep in mind that the outgoing Senate president was the man who gave Gov. Rod Blagojevich what little influence he had in the Legislature. The Illinois House is a place where establishment Democrats take pride in saying they oppose the governor.

So while some might want to think of a Senate president ballot as being political “insider baseball,” the choice of person to fill that leadership spot could have a strong influence on whether Democrats in the House try to take advantage of that 13 percent approval rating (or 32 percent, if one prefers to believe the St. Louis Post-Dispatch poll) and mess with Blagojevich.


EDITOR’S NOTES: The Illinois Campaign for Political Reform compiled its latest study ( to try to figure out what influence money might have in determining who will be Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s new opposition.

Are these the front-runners ( to replace retiring Senate President Emil Jones ( in his leadership position?

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