Jones’ exit causes ripple effect

Ryan Keith

Emil Jones doesn’t get all the fuss over his impending retirement. He’s leaving the Illinois Senate after a 35-year career ready to spend more time with his family — like many other politicians before him.

“Why make a big issue because I retired?” Jones asked reporters Tuesday, a day after announcing he is leaving when his term expires in January.

But Jones’ departure creates a large, rare void at the state Capitol, with a wide-reaching effect on the legislature’s future. Here is a look at why Jones’ retirement is so important.

Tumultuous tenure

Jones has become one of the best-known legislative leaders outside the Capitol — but largely not because of what lawmakers have accomplished under his leadership.

Jones has wielded a heavy hand of power over the Senate. He’s used his clout to push through legislation on gambling expansion, a capital construction program, more education funding and other big programs that have repeatedly stalled in the past.

But most of his notoriety is because of his role as Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s ally in the governor’s ongoing fight with House Speaker Michael Madigan.

Jones has stood up for Blagojevich’s initiatives when Madigan opposed them and blocked votes the governor didn’t want lawmakers to take. Sometimes, his stance with the governor has put his Democratic members in awkward political positions.

“He will be remembered as someone who kept the governor in the game during a period when he could have been shut down by a legislature that was united against him,” said Mike Lawrence, director of the Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale.

Jones has been harshly criticized by fellow lawmakers and newspaper editorial boards for helping defeat an effort aimed at recalling top elected officials and for repeatedly stalling a vote last year on reinstating a freeze on electric rates.

He also supported budget cuts made by Blagojevich the last two years despite legislative outrage. Only recently did Jones relent to public pressure facing his members to vote down a pay raise for themselves and other top officials.

Lawmakers predict a change of approach in working with Republicans, the House and Blagojevich.

“It gives whoever is the next Senate president an opportunity to really kind of create a different image,” said Sen. Brad Burzynski, R-Clare.

Long history

Just 11 of Illinois’ 37 Senate presidents have been Democrats, including two non-consecutive terms in the 1970s by Cecil Partee. But four of the last five presidents have been Democrats, dating back to the mid-1970s.

The top legislative leader spots have been dominated by longevity recently.

Jones has  been Senate president for less than six years, but has led  Senate Democrats since 1993. He replaced Phil Rock, who was Senate president for 14 years before retiring in 1993.

Jones served in the minority under Republican James “Pate” Philip, who succeeded Rock as Senate president for 10 years. Philip retired after Democrats won back control of the chamber in the 2002 election, putting Jones in charge.

Across the Capitol, Madigan is the state’s longest-serving House speaker, running the chamber for the last 25 years, except for two years in the mid-1990s.

That history isn’t lost on Senate Democrats.

“I think this is a once in a decade, maybe two decades, kind of opportunity,” said Sen. David Koehler, D-Peoria.

How important is it?

Under Illinois’ governing system and political process, the Senate president is one of the three most powerful people in state government — simply because he can say ‘no’ to what the others want to do.

“The main impact of the power is to be able to stop something from happening, rather than being able to make it happen,” said Lawrence, a longtime Capitol reporter and spokesman for former Republican Gov. Jim Edgar, who had several run-ins with Philip in the 1990s.

Senate presidents decide what bills move forward and whose bills get called for a vote. Bills can die publicly painful deaths on the Senate floor or be killed quietly behind the scenes to spare senators politically delicate votes — all at the president’s call.

Presidents also decide how inclusive to be to the minority party. Republicans, in the minority since 2002, can ask for votes on bills, but many times their ideas don’t reach the voting stage.

Both Democrats and Republicans have complained of unfair treatment in their alternating minority stints since the 1980s.

“That’s a lot of power in one person’s hands, maybe too much,” said Senate Minority Leader Frank Watson, R-Greenville. “It was a similar process under Republicans.  I’m not so sure it was quite so top-driven as this has been.”

A big part of the power play is politics.

The top Senate Democratic and Republican leaders have millions of dollars in their campaign coffers to help their candidates get elected and re-elected. Candidates can feel obligated to support their leader’s wishes if they want to keep that cash flowing.

Pursuit of power

The power at stake makes this opening even more unusual.

Unlike previous changeovers where the outgoing president was turning leadership over to someone to head the minority party, Jones’ replacement will be the Senate president with a supermajority of 37 votes – enough to get any legislation passed without Republican votes.

Already, candidates are out in droves. As many as a dozen Senate Democrats are either actively campaigning to replace Jones or being talked about as replacements.

They range from Jones proteges and longtime Chicago veterans to downstaters and suburbanites. They face the tough task of trying to bring together a diverse group of Democrats — blacks and Hispanics, downstaters and Chicagoans, Blagojevich supporters and opponents — to get the 30 votes needed to win.

Several times before, it has taken long, intense battles to select Senate presidents. Democrats say deciding who will succeed Jones will take time, but shouldn’t become another bitter fight.

“I think our issues here are much more clear about where we need to go, and I think for the large part, most of the people are on the same page,” said Sen. Donne Trotter, a Chicago Democrat and one of the potential candidates. “So you’re not going to see that type of division, divisiveness that’s going to go on.”

But whoever emerges may have a tough task to unite the Democratic caucus next year and then to ease tensions with the House and governor.

“It’s still out as to whether it’s going to be good or bad,” said Sen. Dale Risinger, R-Peoria.

Doug Finke and Adriana Colindres contributed to this report. Ryan Keith can be reached at (217) 788-1518