One of the most powerful figures in Illinois politics is giving up his position.
State Senate President John Cullerton on Thursday night made the surprise announcement that he will retire in January.
“With great accomplishments, and yes, some setbacks, for the last 11 years I can humbly brag that we have made great strides,” Cullerton said in a statement. “I’m ready to embark on a new course. I’ve been promising my wife, Pam that I would retire: after 39 years of duty ... when I turn 70 ... when we had a Democratic governor ... So now, after 41 years in the legislature and 40 years of marriage, I’m finally going to live up to my promise to retire. In counting our years of marriage, Pam deducts for the days I spend in Springfield, so she will claim we’ve only been married 30 years. Now all that will come to an end and she will have to give due credit to each day together.”
Cullerton was elected to the Illinois House in 1978, moved to the Senate in 1991, and has been Senate president since 2009.
He comes from a long political lineage. The family dynasty counts Chicago alderman dating back to 1871, and while no relatives are currently on the City Council, relations remain politically active.
A distant cousin, Sen. Tom Cullerton, D-Vernon Hills, is also a member of the state Senate, and has pleaded not guilty to embezzlement charges stemming from the allegation that while serving as chairman of the chamber’s labor committee, he pocketed $275,000 in salary and benefits from the Teamsters despite doing little or no work for the union.
The FBI in September raided the office and home of another Democratic senator, Marty Sandoval of Cicero, as part of what appears to be a wide-ranging criminal probe. Another Democratic senator, Terry Link of Waukegan, reportedly wore a wire to help the FBI snare former state Rep. Luis Arroyo, D-Chicago. Arroyo stepped down in the days after his Oct. 25 arrest on bribery charges.
Both situations have put pressure on John Cullerton, with some calling on him to force those senators out of leadership or to resign period. Cullerton, an attorney, has pushed back, citing a principle of innocent until proven guilty.
In the statement announcing his retirement, Cullerton made no references to the corruption scandals.
Rather, he said he was proud to have helped pass, during his time as a lawmaker, two statewide infrastructure programs, the legalization of gay marriage, abolishment of the death penalty, changing how Illinois funds schools, and stabs at curbing pension costs.
“During a time when our efforts were challenged on many fronts, we found ways to reach across the aisle, and through compromise we worked together to get our job done. One of the highlights of my career was working with Republican Leader Christine Radogno to try to bring to an end the state budget impasse,” Cullerton said in the statement.
Cullerton has also been an advocate for measures to curb smoking and was instrumental in Illinois’ seatbelt requirement law. He’s known for his sense of humor, and did some stand-up comedy before taking the Senate’s top job.
Other officials issued their own statements praising Cullerton.
“In the past decade as Senate President, John Cullerton has been a passionate advocate for improving Illinois – whether it was his focus on ending the scourge of youth smoking, dedication to fully funding education or efforts to advance critically needed infrastructure throughout the state,” Gov. J.B. Pritzker said. “Over the years, I came to know John as my state senator, and this past year I have truly appreciated his work to advance our common agenda to stand with working families. I wish him all the best in the years to come, and I know that Pam and his children will be glad to start their next chapter as a family.”
The chamber’s top Republican, Bill Brady, of Bloomington, said he’s known Cullerton for years but only since becoming GOP leader has he “seen first-hand hand the integrity, honesty, and humor that he brought to the responsibilities his office entailed.”
“Senate President John Cullerton has led the Illinois Senate with honor and distinction, and our Chamber will forever be better as a result,” Brady said in a statement.
“We may not have always agreed on how best to address the issues facing the state, but there can be no denying John always put the people of Illinois first. I wish the Senate President and his family well as he begins this next chapter in his life. I am grateful to have had him as a colleague, and I will forever be grateful to call him my friend.”
Cullerton has not set an official retirement date.
News of his retirement will kick off a scramble among the chamber’s 40 Democrats, as Senators chose who will serve as the chamber’s next president – a particularly powerful job, given that the party holds supermajorities in both legislative chambers as well as the governor’s mansion.
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Read the full statement Thursday from Illinois Senate President John Cullerton:
Eleven years ago I was honored to be chosen as the leader of the Illinois Senate. I came to the job with great optimism and enthusiasm, ready to tackle the challenges confronting Illinois, and with great expectations for moving forward to solve some of the crises our state faced.
I’ve had the pleasure to work with a body of Senate members who were equally resolute in moving Illinois forward and making the changes necessary to grow our economy and build a better future for our children and our communities.
With great accomplishments, and yes, some setbacks, for the last 11 years I can humbly brag that we have made great strides. Our list of accomplishments includes:
Two capital bills
Abolished the death penalty
School funding reform
During a time when our efforts were challenged on many fronts, we found ways to reach across the aisle, and through compromise we worked together to get our job done. One of the highlights of my career was working with Republican Leader Christine Radogno to try to bring to an end the state budget impasse.
During my tenure as State Representative and Senator, my focus was on the local district. But once I became Senate President, my primary focus was redirected to the Senate Democratic Caucus.
Our meetings were fun, inspiring, challenging, heart- wrenching, primal and revealing. Finding ways to keep my team united have been some of my proudest and most interesting moments.
I’m ready to embark on a new course. I’ve been promising my wife, Pam that I would retire:
- after 39 years of duty ...
- when I turn 70 ...
- when we had a Democratic governor ...
So now, after 41 years in the legislature and 40 years of marriage, I’m finally going to live up to my promise to retire.
In counting our years of marriage, Pam deducts for the days I spend in Springfield, so she will claim we’ve only been married 30 years. Now all that will come to an end and she will have to give due credit to each day together.
I look forward to watching this august chamber and all you will accomplish. As we all know, there will be bumps in the road, but they will be paved over with new ideas and solutions, and a constantly changing body of members who are eager to bring their own vision and signature to our illustrious Illinois Senate.
Thank you to my family, my friends, and my constituents, whose support and encouragement will always be the backbone of my efforts.
And thank you to my wonderful staff who have kept me on track for the
last 11 years. I owe much of my success to their constant vigilance, their professionalism and their humor throughout it all.
Note: This will be effective in January. A specific date has not been set.
Note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly characterized who will choose the next Senate president. The full state Senate will get to choose the next Senate president. The story has been updated.