Plan for special election blocked by Senate Democrats

Ryan Keith

Hopes for a U.S. Senate special election grew dimmer Thursday as Senate Democrats blocked a Republican-backed proposal to create an election for Roland Burris’ seat and future vacancies.

A Senate subcommittee on ethics voted 3-2 along party lines against Senate Bill 285. The measure calls for a special election within about six months after becoming law, opening Burris’ seat and possible future openings for election.

Republicans say the state should have a special election because of the clouded Burris appointment by now ex-Gov. Rod Blagojevich. Democrats cited soaring costs in blocking the measure.

Both sides accused the other of playing political games.

“I think they’ve made it pretty clear that the guys in charge down here don’t want a special election,” said Sen. Matt Murphy, R-Palatine. “Unfortunately, it seems that Gov. Blagojevich’s enablers are still enabling his final act.”

Murphy acknowledged the vote likely killed his measure.

Gov. Pat Quinn has pushed for Burris’ resignation and supports special election legislation, but is focusing on other priorities now that lawmakers don’t seem supportive of the special election idea, spokesman Bob Reed said.

“He’s taking a pragmatic point of view. He doesn’t see it happening and wants to move ahead,” Reed said.

Republicans, sensing vulnerability among the Democrats in the wake of Blagojevich’s federal arrest and subsequent impeachment, have made a strong public push for a special election.

Democrats originally supported the idea but then backed down. Blagojevich caused another uproar when he appointed Burris, the former state comptroller and attorney general, in late December.

Original cost estimates put the pricetag for election officials at $40 million to $50 million. That has grown to $62 million, Murphy said, and Democrats put the price at as much as $101 million.

Republicans contend Democrats are using cost as an excuse to shield Burris. Democrats respond the money could be better spent in other ways, such as health care and job creation, and note Burris will be up for election late next year.

“The Republicans want to use $62 million to create one job, and I think that’s a big factor,” said Sen. Ira Silverstein, the Chicago Democrat heading the subcommittee who cast the deciding ‘no’ vote. “I don’t think we’re shielding anybody.”

Murphy said Republicans will make an issue in the next election of Democrats’ stance.

“Who wanted to give them a chance to vote, and who wanted to deprive them of a chance to vote? All we can do is point that contrast out,” Murphy said.

He hopes lawmakers at least will approve special elections for future U.S. Senate vacancies.

Sen. Rickey Hendon, D-Chicago, said he supports doing that but thinks Republicans are more interested in trying to score political points.

“He’s (Murphy) just trying to pimp this issue. They’re going to ride Rod Blagojevich into the ground. He’s long gone. Let’s move forward,” Hendon said.

Also Thursday, a bipartisan group of lawmakers unveiled a plan they said would reduce big money’s influence on political campaigns.

Under the proposal, dubbed the Lincoln Act, candidates could choose to participate in a public finance system where they get matching public money as long as they agree to raise only small donations of less than $500 from various individual contributors.

Candidates who participate also could not accept cash infusions from other political committees, including the ones controlled by legislative leaders.

Advocates said the proposal would free candidates from the “money chase” that repeatedly has led to Illinois political scandals, and it would lure newcomers to the political process.

“Raising money as a challenger is one of the toughest things,” said Rep. Will Burns, a Chicago Democrat who won a House seat last year after beating the Democratic incumbent in a primary election. “It’s a huge bar to participation.”

Despite past failed efforts at campaign finance reform, lawmakers said they’re confident about the prospects for success this time because of the scandal surrounding Blagojevich.

“I think we’re in a real post-Watergate space,” Burns said.

Money wouldn’t come from state government for the public financing, which could hit $100 million in governor’s race years such as 2010. Instead, it could come from lobbyist registration fees or fines imposed for election law violations.

The proposal will be included in House Bill 3935 and Senate Bill 1947.

Adriana Colindres contributed to this report. Ryan Keith can be reached at (217) 788-1518 orryan.keith@sj-r.com.