Race to Replace: Who Will Be the Next Illinois Senate President?

Senators have been scrambling since Senate President John Cullerton made a surprise announcement Thursday that he’ll resign in the new year, leaving vacant one of the most powerful positions in state politics – a position that one of the chamber’s 39 remaining Democrats will be chosen to fill.

Two senators thought to be top contenders for the post are not running after all; instead, they’re getting behind someone else.

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Sen. Andy Manar, D-Bunker Hill, and Sen. Heather Steans, D-Chicago, say they are actively backing Sen. Kim Lightford, D-Maywood.

Lightford, who was elected to the Senate in 1998, did not return requests for comment.

“I look at her leadership in the state senate and I see success after success in what is one of the most diverse Democratic caucus in the U.S. Not an easy task. Senate President Cullerton did it – mastered it. That’s what I’m interested in and I believe she has the skill set and the knowledge and the ability to continue that for the Senate Democrats,” Manar said.

Manar also stressed the historical significance of Lightford potentially becoming the first African American woman to serve as one of the four top legislative leaders. 

“She has proven herself to be an effective leader. I think we’re in a time that requires change; we need cultural change in Springfield. I think she’s the one who can accomplish it for us,” Steans said Monday. “She will create a more consensual and team building approach” in the Senate.

Having the backing of Manar and Steans is a significant boost for Lightford, but others vying for the job say it’s too early for anyone to be openly campaigning for it.

Among them: Sen. Don Harmon, D-Oak Park, Sen. Mike Hastings, D-Tinley Park, and Sen. Elgie Sims Jr., D-Chicago.

“I am talking with my colleagues and I am assessing their concerns and interests in the caucus. I expect that I will run for Senate president but I want to keep talking to my colleagues before making any formal announcements,” Harmon said. “People are eager for change but people also want to be sure that the next Senate president has all of the attributes to be effective both inside the building in terms of having good public policy, but also in the political spectrum. Our public policy victories are only as durable as our majority.”

Harmon said he did not want to publicly disclose his backers.

Several insiders told WTTW News on background that they believe the internal race will come down to Harmon and Lightford, but there is a lot of time for politics to play out, promises to be made, deals to get cut and news to break that could upend the current dynamics, particularly as it’s unknown where a seemingly sprawling federal corruption probe will lead.

The next general election is less than a year away – Nov. 3, 2020 – and the next Senate president will be tasked with protecting candidates facing opposition, even as a report Monday by WCIA-TV says that Cullerton will leave the caucus’s campaign fundraising apparatus in shambles.

The next Senate president will also be tasked with learning the ropes of leading a large caucus, working with Gov. J.B. Pritzker and House Speaker Michael Madigan to craft a new budget – at a time when Illinois’ checking account has little to spare – and combatting the ethical cloud over Springfield that has in some capacity involved at least three Democratic senators. (The FBI in September raided the offices of Sen. Marty Sandoval, D-Chicago; Cullerton’s distant cousin Sen. Tom Cullerton, D-Villa Park, is fighting embezzlement charges; and the Chicago Tribune and Sun-Times have each named Sen. Terry Link, D-Waukegan, as a mole for the feds, though Link has denied it.)

Hastings says the next president has to be a leader who shapes policy that lawmakers from all of the state’s diverse regions can get behind while also serving as a political operator who can get Democrats elected.

That requires having a political operation and the ability, “unfortunately,” to raise money.

“I have all those things,” Hastings said. “I can count ... probably five senators that have legitimate political organizations – a base of volunteers to send anywhere in the state, and are able to handle their own district, with no problem taking tough political votes. If you’re going to be the leader you got to lead the whole chamber.”

Sims likewise says he’s been busy making calls to his fellow senators, though at this point he hasn’t been asking for their support outright.

“It’s more important for me to hear what my colleagues have to say,” Sims said, citing a priority of policies that are in the “best interests of working families, economic development for all of the state” and ethics reform that shows a respect for the Senate as an institution.

Cullerton has yet to specify a retirement date in January.

Though the Senate president is officially chosen by the entire chamber, Democrats outnumber Republicans 2-to-1 (they’ve got 40 members to the GOP’s 19).  It’s expected that Democrats will meet in private to choose a new caucus leader, who will then be voted in as Senate president when the chamber formally convenes in an as-yet-unscheduled session early in the new year. 

“If you pick the right person now, potentially you could pick somebody for a long term,” Hastings said. If not, the Senate “may go through this iteration a few more times,” particularly as legislative districts are set to be redrawn after the 2020 census, meaning senators will be running under a new map in the not-too-distant future of 2022.

Other senators mentioned as potential contenders include Sen. Melinda Bush, D-Grayslake, Sen. Napoleon Harris III, D-Harvey and Antonio Munoz, D-Chicago.

President Cullerton is not taking an active role in helping remaining senators choose who among them will fill his role.

State Rep. Sara Feigenholtz, D-Chicago, has expressed interest in an appointment to Cullerton’s 6th District Senate seat, a move which would leave open her House seat. Local Democratic leaders known as committeepersons choose who fills legislative seats mid-term.

Follow Amanda Vinicky on Twitter: @AmandaVinicky

Related stories:

Early Exit for Retiring Senate President John Cullerton

The Week in Review: Cullerton Shocks Springfield with Retirement News

Land Deal Tied to Illinois Senate President Cullerton Under Scrutiny

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