Illinois Democrats set to reach a record number of seats in the Illinois House

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In January, a record number of Democrats are set to be sworn in as state representatives in the Illinois House, giving Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch a supermajority not even enjoyed by his notorious predecessor and claiming its first political victim — now-outgoing House Minority Leader Jim Durkin.

Aided by a newly drawn map of district boundaries, Welch’s Democrats say they racked up wins in as many as 77, and possibly 78, of the House’s 118 seats. That would best the modern high-water mark of 74 seats set in 2018 by Democrats led at the time by now-indicted ex-Speaker Michael Madigan, the longest-serving state House speaker in American history.

The unofficial voting results showed Illinois Senate President Don Harmon’s Democrats also held the supermajority there, a development that means Democrats have ruled both chambers of the General Assembly since 2003.

One of the few bright spots for Republicans is that Senate Minority Leader Dan McConchie’s troops made modest gains even though they could not break the Democratic supermajority that can control the three-fifths vote needed on many important pieces of legislation.

The final tally will likely reduce Harmon’s current Democratic majority from 41 of 59 senators to about 39 or 40, depending on when results are confirmed over the coming days. Democrats will easily exceed the 71 votes needed to control a supermajority in the House and the 36 in the Senate to exercise on issues ranging from borrowing money to overriding a veto to putting proposed constitutional amendments before voters.

The Associated Press reported Wednesday that Democrats had secured at least 74 seats in the House with 10 races too close to call and 36 in the Senate with seven races too close to call. But Democratic and Republican insiders told the Tribune that they expected several of the too-close-to-call races to break for Democrats.

One of the races still hanging in the balance as mail votes continue to arrive in election offices is a seat now held by Democratic state Sen. Michael Hastings of Frankfort, who Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker asked to resign in light of allegations the lawmaker had mistreated women, including allegations of domestic violence by his now-ex-wife.

Hastings has denied the allegations and has not been charged with a crime. Records showed the state paid nearly $150,000 to settle and cover the costs of a 2019 lawsuit brought by Hastings’ former female chief of staff, who alleged retaliation as well as race and gender discrimination.

Hastings is being challenged by Republican Patrick Sheehan of Lockport, who has expressed optimism as votes continue being counted.

Poll worker Dianne Norris helps people vote in the general election at Teamsters Local Union 731 on Nov. 8, 2022, in Burr Ridge.

Poll worker Dianne Norris helps people vote in the general election at Teamsters Local Union 731 on Nov. 8, 2022, in Burr Ridge. (Erin Hooley / Chicago Tribune)

The overwhelming Democratic success in Illinois is part of a broader sweep by the party that included big wins not only in the statehouse, but also congressional seats from Illinois, the Illinois Supreme Court, the Governor’s Mansion and every statewide office.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker secures a second term with easy win over Republican Darren Bailey ]

But the Illinois version of a blue wave in the middle of a divided nation became too much for Durkin, a Western Springs Republican who served nine years as House minority leader.

Hoping to solidify his caucus support by reducing the size of Welch’s Democratic majority, Durkin found even stalwart allies failing to hang on to Republican seats in Tuesday’s election.

Durkin acknowledged he was disappointed with the results but made a point to say he accepted them — a move that is a contrast from some Republicans nationwide, most notably former President Donald Trump, who question the validity of even legitimate elections.

“It has been the honor of a lifetime to serve as leader of the House Republican caucus, but it’s time for the Illinois Republican Party to rebuild with new leaders who can bring independents back to the party that are needed to bring change to the state,” Durkin said.

“I began this journey as a voice of moderation and conclude this journey the same way I started, a voice of moderation,” Durkin said, adding: “To the people of Illinois disappointed with these results, don’t give up hope. Tomorrow is a new day.”

Durkin’s statement also nodded at his attempts over the years to bring reason to an Illinois Republican Party that has increasingly tacked toward hard-right positions pushed by former Gov. Bruce Rauner and this year’s GOP governor nominee, state Sen. Darren Bailey of Xenia, who lost a lopsided contest to Pritzker.

Pritzker on Wednesday acknowledged Durkin worked with him, especially in his first year as the state’s chief executive, to craft a bipartisan budget and address other issues. The governor also said the GOP lawmaker served many years “admirably, honorably” and that his decision to not seek another two-year term as House minority leader is “probably a loss for the Republicans.”

On his post-election victory lap, Pritzker said he will be most concerned about Durkin’s departure if “someone takes the job who’s unwilling to sit down and actually talk about what we might do together. If they’re unwilling to talk, if they reject the idea of bipartisanship, that would not be good for the state of Illinois.”

Democrats expand majority on Illinois Supreme Court with wins by Rochford, O’Brien ]

Tuesday’s election found Welch, of Hillside, coming under particular pressure to prove he could measure up to the Madigan mystique. Welch became the subject of behind-the-scenes grumbling among fellow Democrats when he lost a handful of incumbents in the rare June primary.

Welch took over following the 36-year nationwide record reign of Madigan of Chicago, the once-mighty chairman of the Illinois Democratic Party who lorded over state politics until he was dethroned last year and resigned his House and party posts. He still holds the 13th Ward committeeman job he’s had since 1969, and loyal unions still make major contributions to his political funds.

But Madigan’s departure helped out Democrats because voters no longer hounded incumbents this fall about his all-consuming presence hanging over the party when candidates campaigned, according to state Rep. Ann Williams.

“Voters no longer say, ‘When are you going to get rid of Mike Madigan?’ which in the past had become a frequent refrain on the campaign trail,” Williams said.

“The issue of Madigan was off the table,” said Williams, a North Side Democrat who worked to oust Madigan and made a brief, failed bid to succeed him before Welch secured the speakership last year. “It allowed us to focus on the issues we were hearing about from the voters, including reproductive health, the economy, public safety and the environment.”

Now with Democrats securely staying in charge of the House, Senate. governorship and Illinois Supreme Court, Welch and Harmon of Oak Park also can attribute a large part of the new political zeitgeist to success in their all-important once-a-decade redrawing of House and Senate district boundaries following the U.S. census.

Madigan had been deemed a Jedi master at delivering the type of remapping that sparked critics into saying he represented the epitome of a political leader who could shape district boundary lines so accurately and favorably for politicians that they could pick their constituents rather than the other way around.

Madigan’s crafting of district lines for the U.S. House in 2011, a move that helped Nancy Pelosi regain the speakership in Washington, prompted a Politico writer to declare that he had “punched his ticket to the partisan hall of fame.”

Welch and Harmon pushed the limits of the political cartography as hard or harder than Madigan to help send a lopsided number of Democrats to the U.S. House. That meant Illinois provided a major counterweight to Republican-led states seeking to help give the GOP an edge in taking over the U.S. House.

The Welch-Harmon combo also can revel in the election results for the Illinois Supreme Court, where they drew new district boundaries for the first time in decades and appear to have expanded the Democrats’ majority to 5-2 from 4-3.

The court’s balance of power came into jeopardy when Justice Tom Kilbride, a Madigan-backed candidate for the Supreme Court who had held the seat for two decades, failed in 2020 to collect the 60% of votes he needed to be retained for 10 more years.

But the slanting of the district lines — a maneuver that is always done by the party in charge of drawing them — received heavy criticism from McConchie, of Hawthorn Woods, even though the Senate Republicans gained as many as two seats. McConchie said Welch and Harmon “rigged” the map to favor Democrats with “some of the most gerrymandered districts we’ve ever seen.”

Chicago Tribune’s Rick Pearson contributed.

rlong@chicagotribune.com

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November 10, 2022 at 05:18AM

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