The frustration of trying to get things done in a highly charged atmosphere that included a two-year budget impasse is clearly a factor in some cases of lawmakers announcing departures from the legislature or that they won’t be running again in 2018.
“People say it’s just not fun,” said Chris Mooney, a political science professor at the University of Illinois Springfield. “They just don’t feel like they’re accomplishing anything. … Everything’s been stymied for the last couple of years, and then on top of that, you’ve got the possibility of primaries for some people.”
At least 19 of the 177 House and Senate members on hand at the beginning of the current General Assembly in January aren’t running in 2018.
Some of the exits were planned. They include a couple of lawmakers who have already left and been replaced – former Senate GOP Leader Christine Radogno of Lemont, who had planned to leave mid-term, and former Rep. Emily McAsey, D-Lockport, who resigned to move out of state for her husband’s job. They also include lawmakers seeking other offices, including Sen. Daniel Biss, D-Evanston, who is is running for governor; Rep. Laura Fine, D-Glenview, who is running for Biss’ Senate seat; Rep. Juliana Stratton, D-Chicago, who is running for lieutenant governor; and Rep. Cynthia Soto, D-Chicago, who is seeking to be a commissioner of the Chicago-area Metropolitan Water Reclamation District.
More announcements could come before as election season gets started in earnest. Candidates can start gathering campaign petition signatures in early September.
It’s not unusual to see turnover among lawmakers. According to the November 2016 edition of First Reading, a publication of the General Assembly’s Legislative Research Unit, 33 members of the previous General Assembly weren’t returning to office when the current General Assembly was sworn in last January. Eight of them went onto other jobs or elected positions. Another seven lost their re-election bids.
But this cycle, several lawmakers are citing an increasingly negative tone as a factor in their decisions.
State Rep. Sara Wojcicki Jimenez, R-Leland Grove, made the surprise announcement this month that she won’t run next year. Jimenez is a former chief of staff to First Lady Diana Rauner and was appointed to fill a House vacancy in 2015. But she also voted against the wishes of Gov. Bruce Rauner in approving an impasse-ending state budget including an income-tax increase, and an override of the governor’s veto to put that budget in place in early July. She said she’s not leaving because of any threat of a primary, but did address the negative tone of politics.
“I believe there needs to be better understanding … of the other’s points of view,” Jimenez said. “This doesn’t mean that you vacate your core values. You must hold true to those. But it does mean that aside from those, there is almost always some room for compromise.
“Most of all, everyone needs to be a little kinder. If we start from that posture, we will quickly find that we have much more in common than we may think and it will become an easier path to compromise.”
State Rep. Bob Pritchard, R-Hickley, has been in the House since 2003 and said his announcement that he won’t run again fits with his plan all along that “15 years was about my ceiling point.”
“But certainly things are much more argumentative,” said Pritchard, who voted for the budget but was away from Springfield when the override vote was taken.
He also said citizens have changed, “and I think social media is a part of that, where it’s just so easy for people to be very visceral and not gather the facts – just spout off. It’s not as much fun as what it once was.”
Pritchard said part of the frustration these days is that lawmakers go to Springfield “with the idea that we’re going to help improve our state’s condition.” However, he said, “we really haven’t been able to do that for a number of years, but more recently, it’s really become more difficult.”
State Rep. Bill Mitchell, R-Forsyth, said he let people know during his 2016 campaign that this two-year term – his 10th – would be his last. But his frustration hit a high point with the budget impasse.
“When you have unpaid bills of $15 billion, and my two local hospitals here in Decatur owed over $100 million – no, it’s never been this bad,” said Mitchell, who voted for the budget and override.
Mitchell said there’s “plenty of blame to go around” on why compromise has become more elusive.
As a Republican, he said, he’d naturally side with the governor, though he doesn’t think it has been an effective strategy for Rauner to be “correlating non-budget things with the budget.”
“But then you have a speaker who, all he really cares about is power, and keeping his majority. So I think there’s plenty of blame to go around.”
Mitchell and other departing legislators point at issues like the expansion of the campaign cycle, gerrymandering of districts and the lack of term limits for legislative leaders as contributing causes for the impasse.
Pritchard said he’d like to see limits on leadership terms to eight or 10 years. Rep. Elaine Nekritz, D-Northbrook, a House member since 2003 who’s also departing, also said she’d consider term limits for leaders, but thinks they are a bad idea for rank-and-file members because such measures wold “empower bureaucrats and lobbyists, who have no need to respond to constituents.”
Nekritz put more of the blame on what she says is “constant campaigning.”
She said Rauner has brought that dimension to the process. And the only solution she sees to end constant campaigning would be to overturn the Citizens United U.S. Supreme Court ruling that has allowed so much money into the political arena, including through third-party groups.
“Now, you can spread it around as much as you want, and you don’t even have to disclose it,” she said.
Mitchell agreed that said House members on two-year campaign cycles have really always been in the constant-campaign mode – starting a term in January and starting to circulate petitions the following September for the next year’s election.
He did say one thing that has changed in his time is the amount of money available to members of his caucus. He said he won his first race spending a little more than $300,000, and “we had to raise a good portion of it ourselves.”
Contested races now can have millions spent on each side. And Mitchell said, now, “at least temporarily, that’s changed, where you have Governor Rauner funding a significant portion of legislative campaigns. … That didn’t exist, just even a few years ago.”
State Rep. Steve Andersson, R-Geneva, was demoted from House floor leader – the member of the GOP caucus who is the point person for many debates on bills – after he voted for the budget and override. A lawyer still with a firm, he later announced he won’t seek a third two-year House term.
Andersson said he thinks a key to the acrimonious atmosphere in Springfield – and nationally – is gerrymandering, with districts being drawn to favor one party or the other.
“You create these safe districts,” Andersson said. “So the primary is the only election that matters. And because of that, you drive Republicans to the extreme right. You drive the Democrats to the extreme left.”
He said he’s always thought good government happens more in the “middle” than at the extremes.
“In my case, I was fortunate,” Andersson said. “I’m a moderate Republican, yet I still got elected. That doesn’t happen a lot.”
To vote on “something controversial that your base doesn’t like, even though you believe your district as a whole likes it … that’s a tough call,” Andersson added. “I did it and I’d do it again gladly. But I know a lot of my colleagues maybe … wanted to do it but also wanted to stick around.”
Andersson also said that while he remains a Republican, he thinks his party has changed from being a “big tent,” when even President Ronald Reagan said people who may not agree with 20 percent of the platform were welcome. He said he thinks that idea is “pretty much gone,” and not being 100 percent in is “no longer tolerated.”
He also said Republicans are “not the party we should be in outreach.” He note that making Aug. 4 Barack Obama Day in Illinois – a commemorative holiday that doesn’t call for a day off for the state – passed the House with 87 votes, but more than 10 Republicans didn’t vote.
“To me, honoring the first African American president ever is an accomplishment for our country,” he said, adding it seemed some of his colleagues “could not bring themselves to vote for that. … If you don’t think our African American colleagues on the other side didn’t notice that … they sure as heck noticed.”
Some announced departures have come with strong statements, including one in July from Rep. Chad Hays, R-Catlin, who won’t seek another term.
“The current dislike and distrust between the governor and the speaker has paralyzed government in Illinois,” Hays said. “Ego, money and power eclipse the desire of well-meaning and honest public servants, and blame, press conferences and talking points have replaced governing. Sadly, voices of moderation and reason are increasingly elbowed out by well-financed fringe elements.”
— Contact Bernard Schoenburg: firstname.lastname@example.org, 788-1540, twitter.com/bschoenburg.