Senators expect protracted fight to replace Jones

Ryan Keith

The fight for power is on in the Illinois Senate.

Nearly a dozen Senate Democrats are either talking about or being talked about for the seat of Senate President Emil Jones, who announced Monday he is stepping down when his term expires in January.

Senators were at the Capitol Tuesday for a one-day session to consider several vetoes made by Gov. Rod Blagojevich. But all of the buzz was about Jones and who would replace him.

Democrats took turns huddling with reporters and their Senate colleagues to talk about the biggest power shift in the legislature in many years.

“There’s 37 members, and the last I counted there’s probably about 36 of them that would like to have the position. And that one person that says they don’t want it is probably lying,” said Sen. Donne Trotter, D-Chicago.

Some possible Jones replacements were upfront about their wishes to replace him. Others were more coy.

But all of them acknowledged there’s a lot at stake to succeed Jones, the 72-year-old Chicago Democrat who has served in the legislature for more than 30 years and who has led the Senate Democrats since the mid-1990s.

That’s why they expect a protracted fight for one of the most powerful positions in state government.

“There’s so many things in this domino process that’s going on, and I don’t think it’s going to be anytime soon,” Trotter said.

Jones has been a conduit of controversy since taking over as Senate president in 2003.

He’s helped give Senate Democrats an unusually large supermajority of 37 members, meaning his caucus has enough votes to pass any legislation without needing Republican votes.

But Jones has drawn scorn for teaming up with Blagojevich in his fight with House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago. The tussling has delayed budget deals, caused long overtime sessions and blocked many policy ideas from becoming law.

Jones mostly dodged reporters’ questions Tuesday about why he was leaving and who should replace him. He said he had been considering retirement for three years and decided now was right to spend more time with his grandchildren.

“I just made up my mind and said that’s it,” Jones said. “Sometimes you make up your mind.”

Republicans see Jones’ departure as a sign that the worst legislative fighting could be coming to an end.

“There’s some quality people over there that we would hope would become president that would work with us,” said Senate Minority Leader Frank Watson, R-Greenville. “That’s not the way it’s been. We welcome the change.”

Potential Jones replacements echoed that theme, saying they want to ease hard feelings and make the legislative process work more smoothly.

“I think it’s time that the Senate governs. We need to just focus on that, and try to put some of the personalities behind us. We’ll work together and move forward,” said Sen. Don Harmon, D-Oak Park.

But one top contender and close Jones ally signaled the fighting might not end easily.

“Any of us would seek a better relationship with Speaker Madigan, but we will not put the Senate under the House or anything like that. We won’t give him control of both chambers. We will certainly try to work with the speaker,” said Sen. Rickey Hendon, D-Chicago.

The next Senate president will be selected after an intense lobbying period. The successor will then have to shore up support from other candidates and try to bring together a large group of diverse voices — Chicagoans and downstaters, blacks, Hispanics and whites.

That’s not an easy task, especially when some of the candidates running to replace Jones openly criticize his leadership style.

“I think that change is good, and change will hopefully bring a Senate president that is a little more independent and open minded in wanting to move Illinois forward,” said Sen. Martin Sandoval, D-Cicero.

Doug Finke and Adriana Colindres contributed to this report. Ryan Keith can be reached at (217) 788-1518 ordoug.finke@sj-r.com.