Wating in the Wings: Up-and-Coming Political Leaders Position Themselves to Move Into Starring Roles

Jun 1, 2013

Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon
Credit WUIS/Illinois Issues
History shows the political winds can change dramatically in Illinois.


Just ask Sheila Simon.

Simon, the daughter of the late U.S. Sen. Paul Simon, had a well-known pedigree but little statewide exposure when she was drafted to run for lieutenant governor in the 2010 election. 

“It was not,” Simon says, “something I’d spent a lifetime planning on.” 

And now, with the 2014 election season looming, Simon is among a handful of Democrats and Republicans who are positioning themselves for a bigger slice of the political spotlight. The list of potential up-and-comers include Republicans who have taken advantage of the new political maps that went into effect in the 2012 elections to Democratic members of the Illinois House and Senate who have been given leadership roles by top party brass.

As Simon put it in a recent interview, “Sometimes the timing is right; sometimes the timing is wrong.” 

The pieces fell into place for Simon in 2010, when the pawn shop owner who was nominated for the lieutenant governor’s slot was ignominiously ushered out of the race by Democratic leaders. 

With Scott Lee Cohen’s demise came Simon’s opportunity. The banjo-playing law professor at Southern Illinois University went from failed candidate for Carbondale mayor to second fiddle on the Democratic ticket.

There’s no perfect formula for picking a list of the next crop of Illinois’ leaders. Few outside of Chicago had heard of Rod Blagojevich when he launched his bid for governor in the 2002 election season. Similarly, Chicagoans may not have had Rahm Emanuel penciled in as the city’s next mayor during the waning years of the Daley era.

There are others who, because of their rapid ascension to public office and their young age, have appeared on these kinds of lists before.

Take U.S. Rep. Aaron Schock as an example. In 2008, his star was shining bright when House Minority Leader Tom Cross said the “sky’s the limit” for the Peoria Republican.

Five years later, Schock decided the political skies were too cloudy and announced he would seek re-election to a fourth term in Congress rather than jump into a potentially expensive and career-ending run for governor.

University of Illinois Springfield political scientist Christopher Mooney says Schock no longer qualifies as an up-and-comer in his mind.

“For crying out loud, he’s a member of Congress,” Mooney says.

While Schock and others work to polish their brands, some potentially hot names flame out faster than expected. Democrat Alexi Giannoulias went from political nobody to state treasurer to failed candidate for U.S. Senate. Quinn has given him a chance to keep his name in the mix by appointing him to a post on the Illinois Community College Board, where he serves as chairman.

At the University of Illinois’ Institute for Government and Public Affairs, former Gov. Jim Edgar oversees a program that aims to identify emerging leaders and then train them in responsible and responsive leadership.

The members of the 2012 class are a mix of state and local elected officials, as well as government and business leaders, including some who appear in this article. A 2013 roster is currently in the developmental stages.

Rick Winkel, a former state senator who serves as director of the Institute’s Office of Public Leadership, says the goal of the program is to develop a non-partisan environment that brings emerging leaders from diverse backgrounds together and gives them the chance to get to know each other and develop the ability and desire to work through differences to solve problems for the good of Illinois. 

“In a state with nearly 13 million citizens, there is a rich and diverse resource of talented young people waiting to be discovered who we need to equip and encourage to enter the public arena and lead us back to a prosperous and healthy society,” Winkel said in a recent email. 

  To be sure, Democrats control the levers of state government, holding onto the governor’s seat and the House and Senate. Despite the Red-Blue nature of Illinois geography, Democrats won some key downstate races thanks to their once-per-decade mapmaking handiwork.

For now, however, Democrats looking to move up are blocked by the aspirations of Quinn, U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, Secretary of State Jesse White and Attorney General Lisa Madigan.

Republicans seeking a line to a statewide office face similar hurdles, with Judy Baar Topinka holding down the comptroller’s office and U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk in his Senate seat for at least another two years.

Treasurer Dan Rutherford, once a member of the GOP farm team himself, is looking to move into the Executive Mansion, potentially leaving an opening in his current office. 

State Sen. Michael Frerichs of Champaign has made it clear he’s angling for a spot on the statewide ticket. In February, the Yale University graduate and former county auditor announced a series of fundraisers, signaling that he’s looking at a bid for one of the state’s two fiscal offices.

He’s not the only Democrat in the Senate trying to position himself for the future.

State Sen. Kwame Raoul
Credit NPR Illinois | 91.9 UIS

  State Sen. Kwame Raoul entered the Senate as the replacement for a former state senator named Barack Obama. As senator, Raoul has been put in charge of negotiating a number of high-profile issues, including the redistricting process of 2012 and the recent talks on making it legal for Illinoisans to carry concealed weapons in public.

“He [Raoul] looks like a really smart guy,” says Mooney.

Also doing some heavy lifting in the Senate is Democratic state Sen. Don Harmon, an Oak Park attorney who chairs the powerful Senate Executive Committee.

In the House, Speaker Michael Madigan has put state Rep. John Bradley, a Marion Democrat, in charge of a number of top-shelf issues, ranging from the debate over regulating hydraulic fracturing — known as “fracking” — to his position as chairman of the House Revenue Committee, which has evolved into a powerful clearinghouse for taxation and budgetary issues.

Bradley, an attorney, was once described as a “wallflower” by Blagojevich. Others prefer to think of him in the same vein as the Andy Griffith character Matlock, playing a gentleman of Southern simplicity who will lull you to sleep with his drawling charm before taking you by surprise. 

State Sen. Andy Manar is also on the Democrats’ radar. He’s not your typical downstate freshman lawmaker. 

Manar entered politics as a disciple of the late state Sen. Vince Demuzio of Carlinville and served as a top aide to former Senate President Emil Jones while also serving as mayor of Bunker Hill and chairman of the Macoupin County Board.

Manar’s connections to Senate leadership, as well as those in labor, helped him get mapped into a favorable central Illinois district heading into the 2012 election. He’s up for re-election in 2014.

State Rep. Elgie Sims, a Chicago Democrat, is cut from similar cloth. Before he was appointed to the House of Representatives in 2012, Sims, an attorney and lobbyist, had served as the appropriations chief for the Senate Democrats when they were led by former Senate President Emil Jones. 

Roosevelt University political scientist Paul Green says state Rep. Elaine Nekritz, a Northbrook Democrat, and state Sen. Daniel Biss, an Evanston Democrat, have made a mark in Springfield, particularly for their work on trying to overhaul the state’s pension mess.

But, Green says, it can be tough for legislators to raise their profile because of the dominance of the legislative leaders.

“Each chamber has its Gladys Knight and the rest of the members are the Pips,” Green says.

For some members of the legislature, Springfield remains just a way station on the journey back home to a position of prominence in Chicago.

That’s what makes Susana Mendoza’s career trajectory a question mark in terms of whether she is looking for a bigger role in statewide politics.

In 2001, Mendoza was elected as the youngest member of the 92nd General Assembly and served six terms as a Democratic member of the Illinois House before becoming Chicago city clerk in 2012.

Mendoza made her mark in the state Capitol by championing social service issues, education and law enforcement, but she may be best remembered by current lawmakers for her ability to work both sides of the aisle.

“She’s sort of a ‘sky’s the limit’ kind of politician,” Mooney says.

While the Democratic farm team runs deep and diverse, the GOP up-and-comers are composed generally of white men. 

Bruce Rauner, a virtually unknown wealthy hedge fund manager from Wilmette, is pouring money into an upstart bid for governor, surprising the roster of Republican regulars who were quietly plotting their bids for chief executive, including Treasurer Rutherford, state Sen. Kirk Dillard of Hinsdale and 2010 gubernatorial runner-up Sen. Bill Brady of Bloomington.

State Sen. Matt Murphy
Credit WUIS/Illinois Issues

Rauner faces the daunting task of beating the odds of past rich guys who have sought to turn their dollars into votes without having actually served in some sort of elected position.

For now, Republican state Sen. Matt Murphy’s star is aglow. After making an unsuccessful run for lieutenant governor in 2010, the Palatine attorney is being touted as one of the new generation of GOP leaders. He’s been positioned as a point person on state finances and is often seen as one of the leading attack dogs in the super-minority the Republicans hold in the Illinois Senate.

While Murphy has been positioning himself as a potential statewide contender since 2006, freshman state Sen. Jason Barickman’s rapid rise in the GOP hierarchy caught many by surprise. The Bloomington attorney managed to get himself appointed to the Illinois House in 2010, and then he took on and handily beat former state Sen. Shane Cultra of Onarga in the 2012 Republican primary for a redrawn district stretching from Bloomington-Normal to the Indiana border.

State Sen. Jason Barickman
Credit WUIS/Illinois Issues

But it wasn’t Barickman’s hard-nosed campaigning against a well-liked incumbent that put him on the statewide radar. Rather, he gained attention — for better or worse — by being the lone Republican to support a gay marriage bill when it moved through the Senate earlier this spring.

Barickman’s support of the controversial issue meshes with what party leaders such as U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk have been advocating, but it also could hamstring Barickman in a Republican primary race.

Barickman, who lists former Gov. Jim Edgar as a mentor, doesn’t immediately dismiss questions about the possibility of moving up the food chain.

“I think it’s important for our party to be relevant in the state of Illinois, if not beyond. Many people in the public, even those who do not identify themselves as Republicans, are sympathetic to the notion that we must have balance in our government, and some of that balance comes from a competitive minority party. If I can help create that environment, then I’ll try to do so,” he says.

Just as Barickman ascended to the Senate on the strength of his campaign against a more experienced senator, U.S. Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Manteno put his claim in for a spot on the farm team by beating Don Manzullo of Leaf River in the remapped 16th Congressional District, which stretches from Rockford into central Illinois.

Kinzinger, a military veteran, has been on the list before. At age 20, he was elected to the McLean County Board, where he served until he left to become a military combat pilot.

Winkel, who represented the Champaign-Urbana area in both the House and Senate before moving to the U of I, says the emerging leaders program could provide a road map for boosting the profile of future politicians and repairing the state’s battered image.

“Our political parties should recruit candidates not only on electability — having charisma, being articulate, likeable, etc. — but also on proven leadership and ability to govern. The people of the state deserve and should demand no less from their public officials and the political parties.” 

Kurt Erickson is the Springfield bureau chief for Lee Enterprises.

Illinois Issues, June 2013