Illinois state Rep. Annazette Collins is getting a promotion to the state Senate. Democratic leaders in Chicago appointed Collins to fill out the term of Rickey Hendon, a controversial lawmaker who abruptly resigned last month.
About a dozen Democratic ward committeemen gathered Monday afternoon at a West Loop restaurant to interview candidates for the Fifth Senate District vacancy. More than 12 hopefuls showed up, including Collins, former candidate for governor Scott Lee Cohen and Patricia Van Pelt Watkins, who recently ran for Chicago mayor.
Collins won unanimous support from the Democratic leaders during a public vote. But it was a different story earlier, behind closed doors. Sec. of State Jesse White chaired the meeting, and told reporters there was a "heated discussion."
"So the fix was not in," White said in response to a suggestion that the outcome was pre-determined. "Everyone up there had their thoughts about who was best qualified to be the senator of this district. And we just finally - a few moments ago - arrived at who that person should be."
As proof of that, White revealed that he was not personally in favor of Collins' candidacy.
"There were about four people that I liked very well," said White, who controlled about 17 percent of the weighted vote used to select a new state senator. "But the four I liked [did not include] the one that ended up with the position."
An underlying tension affecting Monday's proceedings was the complicated web of West Side political alliances. This includes, most notably, the tough re-election fight for 24th Ward Chicago Ald. Sharon Denise Dixon, who controlled nearly a quarter of the weighted vote. Dixon faces a strong challenge in an April runoff from the man she unseated from the city council four years ago, Michael Chandler.
Dixon's chosen candidate for the Senate vacancy was Vetress Boyce, a former business executive who actually ran against the alderman in the February election. Boyce finished out of the runoff, in third place behind Dixon and Chandler.
Boyce finished third again Monday in the closed-door votes cast by Democratic officials, behind Collins and Patricia Van Pelt Watkins.
Collins credited her victory to her ten years of experience in the General Assembly, and the heft that could provide in the upcoming redistricting fight that could leave the Fifth Senate District looking much different than it does now.
But Collins acknowledged Monday that politics is not all about resume, when she alluded to another factor in the Democratic negotiations: the rivalry between Sec. White and her chief backer, former Ald. Ed Smith, who controlled close to 14 percent of the weighted vote.
"In politics, everybody wants control, and they want their own power," Collins said. "And so they want someone that they can say, 'This person is in my organization.'"
The bid of another candidate who garnered a lot of media attention quickly fizzled. Scott Lee Cohen failed to garner any nominations from committee members, who questioned his Democratic credentials given his recent bid for governor as an independent. Cohen said he may run for the seat when it is next up for election, in 2012.
With Collins' move to the state Senate, Democratic officials must now appoint her replacement in the state House.
"Van Pelt Watkins had a lot of support, and when it comes to this legislative seat that's coming up, we think that she's going to be a viable candidate," White said after the meeting.