Ends and Means: The mythic Greek hero might have met his match this campaign season

Dec 1, 2002

Charles N. Wheeler III
Credit WUIS/Illinois Issues

As one of his 12 labors, Hercules had to clean out the Aegean stables, a task he completed without dirtying his hands by diverting two rivers through the vast and noisome barnyard.

But the mythic Greek hero might have met his match had he tried to clean up the mess from the political campaigns that mercifully ended here last month, even with the Mississippi and Ohio rivers at his disposal.

While Illinois politicians seemed to sink to new lows in negative campaigning, they also reached new highs — close to $40 million in the governor’s race alone — in raising the dollars to pay for all the mud- slinging. Yet when the last character-assassinating TV spot ended and the last prevaricating brochure hit the final mailbox, Illinois citizens voted pretty much the way everyone expected, long before all that money was spent to change their minds. Consider the results:

  • U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, a Demo-crat, cruised to re-election over state Rep. Jim Durkin, a Republican from Westchester, who had scant help from national GOP operatives.
  • Democratic U.S. Rep. Rod Blagojevich easily won the governorship over Republican Attorney General Jim Ryan, as polls expected all campaign season.
  • State Sen. Lisa Madigan, a Chicago Democrat, was elected attorney general by almost 108,000 votes over DuPage County State’s Attorney Joe Birkett, again as most polls predicted for months.
  • Secretary of State Jesse White, Comptroller Daniel Hynes and Treasurer Judy Baar Topinka all won new terms handily, as incumbents in lower-level statewide offices have done for years.
  • Ten Republicans and nine Demo-crats were elected to the U.S. House, just as party powerbrokers in Washington, D.C., planned when they drew new districts after the 2000 census, which cost Illinois a seat.
    The only potential glitch was the refusal of U.S. Rep. David Phelps to accept the sacrificial role assigned him; the Eldorado Democrat fought gamely, but lost to U.S. Rep. John Shimkus of Collinsville by some 23,000 votes.
  • Democrats won majorities in the legislature, a foregone conclusion after the party won the right to draw new Senate and House districts some 14 months ago.

Voters rewrote the script in a couple of races, ousting favored incumbent Sens. Laura Kent Donahue, a Quincy Republican, and William O’Daniel, a Mount Vernon Democrat.

Also losing was Sen. William Shaw, a Dolton Democrat, edged by the Rev. James Meeks of Chicago in the South Side-south suburban 15th District (see Illinois Issues, September, page 39). Meeks, running under the banner of the “Honesty and Integrity Party” is the first third-party candidate elected to the state Senate in 88 years.

In another first, Frank Aguilar, a Cicero town administrator, triumphed in the west suburban, 72-percent Hispanic 24th House District, becoming the only Republican to win in a minority district since three-member districts were eliminated in 1980.

Elsewhere in legislative races, things ran pretty much to form and to Demo-cratic wishes. As a result, Democrats will hold margins of 33 to 26 in the Senate (Meeks will align himself with Demo-crats) and 66 to 52 in the House. With Blagojevich as governor, the party will have unfettered control over — and responsibility for — state government for the next two years.

The specter of Democratic control resulting in a state run by the Chicago political machine interests was among the silliest red herrings Jim Ryan and his GOP sidekicks dredged up in a relentlessly negative campaign. A refresher course in Politics 101 and a quick glance at election results belies the claim.

Presumably, Democrats would like to stay in office, and so will try to please the folks who elected them. Blagojevich received about 548,000 votes from Chicagoans, less than a third of his 1.8 million total. His abortion-rights stance helped him pull 656,000 suburban votes, while union backing aided in garnering 638,000 votes in the state’s 96 downstate counties. Given the numbers, logic dictates Blagojevich won’t shortchange either the suburbs or downstate.

Bad-mouthing Chicago, meanwhile, may have cost Ryan dearly; he took less than 19 percent of the city vote, the worst Chicago showing by a GOP gubernatorial candidate in at least 40 years. In contrast, Gov. George Ryan won almost a third of the Chicago vote in 1998. Jim Ryan also ran some 12 points behind the incumbent governor in the suburbs, losing suburban Cook by more than 50,000 votes.

Suburban and downstate voters also gave Democrats their legislative major-ities. Of 33 incoming Senate Democrats, only 16 are from Chicago. Nine are suburbanites and eight from down- state. The regional diversity is more pronounced in the House, where Chicagoans will account for just 30 of the 66 Democrats. Sixteen are from the suburbs; the other 20 are downstaters. House Speaker Michael Madigan and Senate Democratic Leader Emil Jones Jr. aren’t likely to pursue a pro-Chicago agenda and risk the re-election chances of the suburban and downstate Demo-crats who provide their majorities.

Of course, Republicans weren’t alone in ignoring the facts to score cheap points. Blagojevich hammered Ryan incessantly for not investigating the license-for-bribes scandal, while Ryan insisted he deferred to federal prose-cutors. In reality, asking the attorney general to conduct a criminal investigation is like calling the dentist to get new contact lenses. With narrow exceptions, the office practices civil, not criminal, law. 

That’s a fact that Birkett — who depicted the job as a state’s attorney on steroids — apparently still doesn’t get; in a concession call to Madigan, Birkett told her, “Lisa, you’re a prosecutor now.” No, she isn’t. She is set to become the state’s first female attorney general, ready to continue the ombudsman role crafted by a long line of predecessors.


Charles N. Wheeler III is director of the Public Affairs Reporting program at the University of Illinois at Springfield.

Illinois Issues,December 2002