Battle for the Illinois House Hinging on Budget, Independence

September 29, 2010

Download Story
Michael Madigan, who also chairs the state Democratic Party (AP/file)
Illinois Republicans say they're optimistic this year. Not just about the governor's race, or congressional ones, but also about those often-overlooked campaigns for the Illinois legislature. Control of the state Senate is not really at play in the November elections, but Republicans say they do have a shot at taking control of the Illinois House.

It's been eight years since Republicans controlled the governor's mansion, or either chamber of the General Assembly. This fall, Tom Cross, the top Republican in the Illinois House, is feeling good.

CROSS: I've never been as excited in a campaign season as I am now. We've got bright, articulate candidates...

...candidates Cross says he's visiting around the state, trying to raise money for, and talk to about the party's message. Talking point No. 1 right now focuses on Democratic bungling of state finances, specifically a multi-billion dollar budget deficit.

CROSS: I think 20 seats are in play. Right now the House Republican caucus is outnumbered 70 to 48.

For Republicans to take control of the chamber, Cross needs to win 12 seats now held by Democrats.

CROSS: Anything could happen. I think 12 is doable. I don't think it's easy. I think everything's got to click.

BROWN: When all is said and done, there might be some seats that switch hands. But I think Democrats will maintain a majority in both the House and the Senate. That's pretty clear.

Steve Brown is the longtime spokesman for House Speaker Mike Madigan and the Democratic Party of Illinois, which Madigan chairs. He says Tom Cross' optimism is misguided, and a bit fake.

BROWN: He has a rather enthusiastic appeal he's making to the media. He goes into different media markets, declares different districts all across the state his No. 1 priority, but the evidence doesn't bare that out.

Brown says Democrats aren't to blame for the budget. He says the state's financial problems were caused by the national economy, and says Democratic incumbents have a record...

BROWN: ...where they're the ones that have dealt with some of the serious problems, they're the ones who impeached Governor Blagojevich.

That does not mean all vulnerable Democrats are bragging about their party's record. In fact, they're trying to steer clear of it.

Take, for example, 66th District Rep. Mark Walker, a first-term Democrat from Arlington Heights. In 2008, Walker narrowly won this northwest suburban district, which was held by Republicans for a long time.

WALKER: Well, I think it's fair to say, and I'd be open to say, that I came in on a wave last time. And now the wave is flowing out to sea and I'm trying to swim to shore.

To get there, Walker is stressing his independence. He says he won't commit to voting for Madigan next year as Democratic leader. And he takes every opportunity to say how frustrated he is with how state government works.

WALKER: I don't especially like Springfield. I think it's an honor to be in the capitol. It's a place where things go to die, frankly. And you have to really struggle against the system to get things done.

I caught up with Walker on a quiet street in his district. He was sweaty and looked exhausted, and said he'd just finished a few hours of going door-to-door to meet voters.

WALKER: Not the majority, but a significant portion of the people start with, 'I'm going to throw out all incumbents.' And as soon as I can engage then I usually get them on my side because I'm the baby in the bath water.

Walker says he's now spending up to four hours a day walking door-to-door. His opponent, Republican David Harris, doesn't much care for walking. 

He uses a Segway -  the electric two-wheeled things people stand on and zoom down roads or sidewalks. Harris uses one when he goes door-to-door meeting voters.

HARRIS: I can say that a Segway requires balance, which it does, and I think that's certainly something we need in Springfield.

You're hearing right. He's using the Segway as a metaphor for state government.

HARRIS: Balance, you know, a balanced budget and balance in terms of partisan differences, that sort of thing. In addition to which, it's probably going to save me a knee replacement.

Harris is no stranger to campaigning or government, as the Democratic incumbent, Walker, likes to point out. He worked for the U.S. State Department, led the state National Guard, and served in the Illinois House for about 10 years, until he lost a primary election in 1994.

Harris is trying to keep the focus this campaign on budget issues, and says his opponent is part of the problem.

HARRIS: There's no fiscal accountability and there's no fiscal discipline in state government right now because the legislature did not do what the legislature is supposed to do.

One point that Harris and his opponent agree on is taxes. Neither support an increase in the state income tax rate. That's a popular position in the northwest suburbs.

Just ask the candidates in another competitive race, in the neighboring 56th District.

HIGGINS: We need to balance our state budget without a tax increase. MUSSMAN: I do not want to see a tax increase.

Republican Ryan Higgins, an attorney, is going up against graphic artist Michelle Mussman, who is trying to hold the 56th District for Democrats.

But to do that, Mussman is doing her best to distance herself from Democrats. At a debate last week in Schaumburg, Mussman attempted to sound as non-partisan as possible.

MUSSMAN: I am a resident here. I have no ties or obligations to any political party.

Higgins questioned that.

HIGGINS: She also says that she will stand up to the party leadership in Springfield. Yet she accepts enormous campaign contributions from the committee that Michael Madigan controls.

Of course, Higgins himself is taking big campaign donations from his party's leadership. Both parties are investing heavily in these northwest suburban races - the 56th and the 66th - and they're really must-wins for Republicans if they hope to take control.

And if that happens - if voters put the GOP in charge of the House - it doesn't mean those who want big change will get it.

University of Illinois at Springfield professor Kent Redfield points out that Democrats will likely stay in control of the state Senate, and they'd block any sweeping Republican proposals.

REDFIELD: Anything that's got an ideological. Anything that's business versus labor, anything that's liberal versus conservative, it's just, you know, nothing's going to happen.

Redfield has been keeping a close eye on legislative races this year. So I asked him how he'd react if he wakes up Nov. 3 and finds out that Republicans had done it, they'd taken control of the House.

REDFIELD: I would be surprised, but I wouldn't be shocked. In '94 I was shocked (laughs).

That shock of '94 came when the Illinois House saw a 13-seat swing, costing Democrats their majority, and Madigan his long-held speakership. He got it back two years later, and has held onto it ever since.