Dear state senators,
We know that since Senate President John Cullerton’s surprise retirement announcement, you’ve been making Santa a list of the attributes you want in your next leader.
Majority Democrats want someone who can raise gobs of money and will share it generously. Someone who can hire smart strategists for the campaign trails is a must. Someone with the fortitude not to cower in the presence of Himself, House Speaker Michael Madigan, also would be ideal. And someone who knows their way around a map and who can hire a crafty cartographer is a big plus. All of these, of course, are about making sure you incumbent Democrats can remain incumbents. We’re not naive. We Illinoisans know that’s always Wish No. 1.
But maybe, just maybe, this is one of those times when a bit of deeper-than-reflex reflection is in order. Maybe this is the season you should think about that vote for Senate president just a little bit more.
One of you, state Sen. Tom Cullerton, was charged by federal law enforcement this year for allegedly getting paid by a union for a no-work job. Another of you, state Sen. Martin Sandoval, resigned after federal agents made a show of raiding his offices and home. Another, state Sen. Terry Link, denies reports he’s been wearing a wire, which led to the arrest of former state Rep. Luis Arroyo for allegedly offering a bribe. And that’s just within your own caucus.
Consider the bigger backdrop. In the past 14 months, Cook County Assessor Joe Berrios was ousted after repeated analyses suggested he was cutting tax assessment deals to benefit the rich at the expense of the poor. And there was the papering over of Chicago Ald. Ed Burke’s office and his arrest on extortion charges after 50 years of holding sway in Chicago and Cook County. And what about that every-ward mayoral victory by former federal prosecutor Lori Lightfoot, who quickly put Burke in his place, ended his reign over the city’s workers’ compensation system and then curbed aldermanic privilege?
Between the feds and the actions of voters in the most populated parts of this state, it seems a tide is turning, senators. Do you really want to obsess only about who can collect the most campaign cash?
Perhaps it’s time to consider who might operate with the greatest reservoir of ethics and accountability? Maybe it’s time to consider who might actually allow your bills to be debated and voted upon whenever they win a reasonable amount of support. Maybe you should choose someone who will act quickly to stop politicians from resigning one day and going to work as lobbyists the next. Consider someone who will push to ban officeholders from working as lobbyists elsewhere so Illinoisans can have confidence about who our officials really are representing.
Maybe you should consider who will work to fully empower the legislative inspector general to operate independently so the culture in the Capitol improves sooner rather than later. Maybe it’s time to look for a leader who will restrict the types of outside jobs you can have so the people’s business comes first. Maybe it’s time for a Senate president who will champion detailed and useful annual financial disclosures for all of you so that we can plainly see where your motivations lie.
Yes, it’s true none of these are the typical attributes by which legislative leaders are measured. But maybe, just maybe, dear senators, the feds, the people and past history are compelling you to consider a new and unconventional set of characteristics for your future leader.
This column originally appeared in Crain’s Chicago Business.