Jockeying to take over Jones' spot already has begun

Adriana Colindres and Doug Finke

The jockeying among would-be successors to Senate President Emil Jones Jr. already was well under way Monday by the time Jones confirmed what others had said and officially announced his plans to retire.

“I suspect that’s going to be a free-for-all,” said University of Illinois at Springfield political science professor Kent Redfield.

Indeed, Democratic Sens. Rickey Hendon of Chicago, Jeff Schoenberg of Evanston and Terry Link of Waukegan all said Monday they want to take over Jones’ leadership spot once he leaves. Others mentioned as possible contenders include Sens. John Cullerton of Chicago, James Clayborne of Belleville and Don Harmon of Oak Park.

“I’ve been President Jones’ go-to guy for a long time now,” Hendon said. “If people don’t hold that against me, I’ll be all right.”

Schoenberg described himself as having “a proven track record of building consensus to solve difficult problems.”

A “dark horse candidate” to succeed Jones could be Sen. John Sullivan, D-Rushville, said Sen. Gary Dahl, a Republican from Granville. Sullivan couldn’t be reached Monday.

Members of the Senate Democratic caucus likely will wait until after the Nov. 4 election to vote on their next leader, lawmakers said Monday. That person would become Senate president, assuming the Democrats hold their majority in the Senate, as is expected. Otherwise, he or she would become Senate minority leader.

“Do I think it will be won on the first ballot? No,” said Link. “(But) I think we will be able to sit down and work it out. I think cooler heads will prevail.”

Sen. Deanna Demuzio, D-Carlinville, said she and fellow Democratic senators from downstate Illinois already have started talking about ensuring that the next Senate president recognizes the needs of their constituents.

Jones “did understand downstate,” Demuzio said. “He understood a number of issues and had an open mind.”

The future of Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s relationship with the General Assembly, and with the Senate in particular, will hinge on who replaces Jones as leader of the Senate Democrats, lawmakers said.

Jones and Blagojevich have been close allies, frequently teaming up to spar over public policy matters with their fellow Chicago Democrat, House Speaker Michael Madigan. The result has been gridlock on a variety of issues, including a capital program.

Jones’ retirement “might be of the greater detriment to the governor than anyone else,” said Sen. Larry Bomke, R-Springfield. But he warned that if Jones’ successor is a Blagojevich loyalist, “we’re looking at continued gridlock, I believe.”

Link said Jones was subjected to unwarranted criticism because of his association with Blagojevich.

“The perception was that he was doing the governor’s bidding,” Link said. “I don’t think that perception was fair.”

Sen. Mike Jacobs, D-East Moline, said Jones’ retirement announcement is bad news for Blagojevich.

“I don’t believe the next leader will have near the association with the governor,” Jacobs said. The next Senate president “will have to have a better relationship with the speaker.”

But Senate Democrats shouldn’t choose their next Senate president based on his or her relationship with Blagojevich or Madigan, said Sen. David Koehler, D-Peoria.

“I think they need to lead the Senate,” he said. “That’s the job they’re going to be voted on to do.”

Adriana Colindres can be reached at (217) 782-6292 or adriana.colindres@sj-r.com. Doug Finke can be reached at (217) 788-1527 or doug.finke@sj-r.com.