Sen. Richard Durbin flexes muscle in Illinois and DC – Crain’s Chicago Business

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As Dick Durbin prepares to start his fifth term in the U.S. Senate, the Springfield Democrat is flexing political muscle at home and seeking more power in Washington.

Illinois’ collegial elder statesman was the first prominent Democrat in the state to publicly break with Michael Madigan and urge him to step aside after a corruption scandal swirling around the longtime party boss hurt Democrats on Election Day. In D.C., he’s angling for an influential committee post and hoping Democrats pull off an unlikely sweep of two Georgia runoffs that would give his party control of the Senate.

As minority whip, Durbin, 76, is the second-highest-ranking Democrat in the Senate, where he’s served for nearly 24 years. At the end of the fifth term he won this month, he would tie the 30-year tenure of Illinois’ longest-serving U.S. senator, Shelby Moore Cullom, who was in office from 1883 to 1913.

Yet he has little power to move legislation in a Senate controlled by Republicans under the iron-fisted rule of Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Barring a Democratic upset in Georgia, Durbin’s policy goals—improving the Affordable Care Act, COVID relief, infrastructure spending and his decades-long push for comprehensive immigration reform—face a tougher road.

Durbin sees another opportunity to expand his influence. On Nov. 23, he said he wants to succeed Dianne Feinstein, who is stepping aside as the ranking Democrat on the powerful Judiciary Committee. It’s an important post regardless of whether Democrats are in the majority—Durbin would be responsible for helping usher President-elect Joe Biden’s judicial nominees through confirmation hearings. The same day, Biden tapped Reema Dodin, Durbin’s deputy chief of staff, to help run his Office of Legislative Affairs.

According to Durbin, senators from both parties “are fed up with the way the Senate is being handled by McConnell. . . .There’s virtually no floor activity, no legislation, no effort to allow his membership to engage in the issues of the day, and many of them are now speaking out.”

While Durbin’s criticism of McConnell and President Donald Trump has become routine, he surprised observers when he took direct aim at Madigan after Election Day in an appearance on WTTW’s “Chicago Tonight,” saying “his presence as chairman of our party has not helped.”

Durbin’s statements opened the door for sharper criticism from other top Illinois Democrats. Sen. Tammy Duckworth and Gov. J.B. Pritzker both called on Madigan to relinquish the party role he’s held since 1998.

Durbin blames Madigan for the Election Day woes of three close political allies. Betsy Dirksen Londrigan lost her congressional race, Thomas Kilbride lost his Illinois Supreme Court seat and Rep. Cheri Bustos stepped down as head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee after nearly losing her seat in Congress. All were tagged—accurately or not—as Madigan acolytes.

“That’s why I said what I did,” Durbin told Crain’s. “He is not helping our state party and its candidates by being chairman. He is the biggest problem, the biggest challenge they have, when they run for election.”

Political observers saw Durbin’s remarks as a turning point for Madigan.

“As soon as I heard Durbin say that, I said this is it. This is the first time I’ve said to people, ‘Madigan’s done,’ ” says Christopher Mooney, professor of state politics at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “He would not have said that offhandedly. He would not have said what he said cavalierly or out of anger. He said it strategically.”

The comments came after 15 years of Durbin quietly building a party infrastructure out of Madigan’s reach and a simmering frustration with the speaker’s operation. Calling the Democratic Party of Illinois “dead last” among state parties, Durbin says it has served largely to preserve Madigan’s power in the House, rather than helping recruit, train and fund candidates up and down the ballot.

“He just wasn’t engaged as a party chairman,” Durbin says.

Madigan disputes that in a statement, saying DPI has trained thousands of volunteers, candidates and poll watchers, and protected the 2020 count. He also credits the organization for Democrats’ control of statewide constitutional offices, “an overwhelmingly Democratic Illinois congressional delegation and supermajorities in the Illinois House and Senate.”

In the mid-2000s, Durbin turned to the Democratic County Chairs Association as an alternative to DPI. He helped the DCCA get the Democratic National Committee’s voter file for Illinois—a data trove of names, ages, addresses and voting and donor histories. DCCA “is the state party now, as far as I’m concerned,” Durbin says. “It does the work . . . of organizing for elections, coordinating campaigns, reaching out downstate and around the state.”

Not that Durbin wants Madigan’s job. Asked how he views his own role in the party going forward, he says supporting “good candidates any way I can.” He’s not a member of the state central committee that chooses DPI leadership. Even if he was, it’s not clear members can do much before 2022, when a new chair is chosen, unless Madigan leaves voluntarily. Durbin’s proxy on the committee is his state director, Bill Houlihan, who says he’d consider stepping up.

Despite the increasing criticism, Madigan retains considerable support among Democrats who value his fundraising prowess, campaign apparatus, connections to Black and Latino leadership, and successful track record of building up his own supermajority. Yet Durbin continues to make the case for change.

“It is time for Illinois to break away from the embarrassing chapters that we’ve had when it comes to corruption and to lead the nation in ethics,” Durbin says. “It would call for some real courage in the General Assembly, but I think it’s long overdue.”

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November 25, 2020 at 02:44PM

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