The Final Word | Illinois Senate President John Cullerton

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Attorney John Cullerton began his career in the Cook County public defender’s office. He was elected to the House in 1978 and appointed to the Senate in 1991, becoming president in 2009. One of his first duties was overseeing the impeachment trial of then-Governor Rod Blagojevich.

Illinois House Speaker John CullertonWhat is your top legislative priority this session?

We have had a rocky three years. Last year was actually pretty positive because we finally passed a balanced budget and major school reform. But we still owe close to $16 billion, so we have to figure out a way to pay down our bills because we’re paying interest on them. That’s got to be the top priority.

With Illinois’ budget problems and high legislative turnover, how do you lead your members forward?

Though it appears that individual members and the parties are moving further apart, our experience in Illinois proved to be the opposite. After two years of gridlock, my former counterpart, Republican Senator Christine Radogno, said, ‘Why don’t you and I work together and try to pass legislation out of the Senate?’ We put together a package of bills including a tax increase supported by Republicans and business reforms supported by Democrats. That’s what people want—bipartisanship.

Will bipartisan efforts continue?

Here’s the problem: It’s an election year. The governor is up for re-election. He did not sign the budget or the tax increase, and he rejected many of the reforms we passed. Senator Radogno resigned in frustration, and we have a new Republican leader. As a result, we may be back to our contentious fighting.

How would you describe your leadership philosophy?

I like to be liked rather than feared. We have a supermajority. In Illinois, that is 36 votes; we have 37. My goal is to bring everybody together. We need 36 votes to override the governor, so we don’t have a lot of votes to spare.

The Illinois General Assembly has produced two of the nation’s presidents: Abraham Lincoln and Barack Obama. How was it serving with one? 

You know some of your colleagues are more ambitious than others, some have a brighter future. But the notion that somebody you sat next to for eight years would become the president is so cool. I spoke with President Obama about a month ago because he’s raising money for his presidential center in Illinois, so we need to help him in the legislature. He’s still a resident of Illinois and is still active here. It’s a source of great pride.

What can and should be done to change the culture of sexual harassment?

We passed a law making it clear that if someone wants to file a complaint about sexual harassment, they go to the Legislative Ethics Commission. Each chamber also created a task force to come up with ideas to make the process work better. It’s obviously very unfortunate that this has happened, but it’s good that we are responding to the challenge. If the reason it’s so prevalent is because women in the past felt like they couldn’t file legitimate complaints, then it’s a good thing that people now feel they can. Hopefully there will be less of this happening as a result.

How did being the eldest in a large family prepare you for leading the Senate?

I have five sisters and three brothers and so does my wife. I look upon my caucus as a family. I’m sort of like the oldest sibling. You learn how to negotiate.

When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?

My grandfather was a lawyer. By the time I was 11, I decided I wanted to be a lawyer. I wasn’t sure why. I knew that every year he had a new Buick, so maybe I figured I’d get a new car every year. On my father’s side were the Cullerton politicians. My great-grandfather’s brother was a state representative in 1873.

What would surprise people most to learn about you?

The one thing I really like to do is be a stand-up comedian, and there’s so much material on the floor of the Illinois Senate that it’s very tempting. Telling jokes is a whole other skill. It’s much more difficult than giving a speech because you can’t read your joke, you have to deliver it perfectly. If you hit a home run, it’s phenomenally fulfilling, and if you bomb, it’s really depressing.

Can you share a joke?

Just about everywhere I go politically, I go with my wife, so I love to introduce her as the speaker of my house, Pam Cullerton. We’ve been married 38 years and somebody asked her, ‘What’s the secret to a successful marriage?’ And my wife said, ‘We’re both in love with the same man.’

What final words would you like to leave with our readers?

Folks really prefer us not to be in conflict, but to get stuff done, work it out. When we get interviewed by competing media outlets that are trying to stay alive, they’ve got to have a big conflict story. So things get distorted because people think everybody is fighting. What the public really wants, what they are hungry for, is for legislators to sit down and compromise.

Jane Carroll Andrade, a contributing editor to the magazine, conducted this interview, which has been edited for length.

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