An Exit Interview with Senate President John Cullerton


After more than 40 years in public office, Illinois Senate President John Cullerton is retiring. One of Illinois’ most powerful politicians, his surprise retirement comes as three fellow state senators are under federal investigation.

Cullerton says federal authorities have not talked to him as part of their investigation. “I just want them to get to the bottom of this,” Cullerton told Carol Marin during his appearance Monday on “Chicago Tonight.” “I’ve served with almost a thousand people and the overwhelming majority are honest. The bulk, whether you agree with them or not, are down there to do the right thing, but we’re all affected by it adversely.”

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Cullerton points to child car seat and anti-smoking legislation as two of his proudest accomplishments. “Any time you can pass a law where you’re protecting health and saving lives, it’s very powerful,” he said. “Even if you start off with half a loaf, like on the seat belt laws, and you get tougher and tougher every year, people get more accepting. Some slow growth is better than nothing.”  

Cullerton was elected to the Illinois House in 1978, moved to the Senate in 1991 and has been Senate president since 2009, when he presided over the impeachment of then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich.   

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-Villa Park, 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.

In September 2019, the FBI 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.

Cullerton officially retires during a special Illinois Senate session in Springfield on Sunday, Jan. 19, where senators will elect his successor.

Cullerton says he looks forward to devoting more time to his law practice and family, which includes three grandchildren. 

Note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly noted the location of Sen. Tom Cullertons district office. The story has been updated.


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