Yesterday, the Illinois House Republicans ushered in a new era when they elected Jim Durkin of Western Springs to replace Tom Cross of Oswego as minority leader. In what was expected to be a fight turned into a coronation when Springfield’s Raymond Poe withdrew his name from consideration for the post and endorsed Durkin. Durkin will inherit Cross’ problems and challenges. But, he has a background that may be designed to meet them and he has a very valuable new tool to utilize.
Jim Durkin is a 52 year-old attorney who is sort of a fighter. The Westchester, IL native is a graduate of the John Marshall Law School and he is a former Cook County Assistant State’s Attorney where he was a felony prosecutor and a special prosecutor in the narcotics unit. He was first elected to the Illinois House’s 44th District in 1995 and served until 2002 to make a run at U.S. Senate against Dick Durbin. After losing to Durbin (60.3% to 38%), Durkin scaled down his ambitions in 2006 to rejoin the Illinois House in the 82nd District. One of his legislative career highlights was serving as the ranking Republican on the Illinois House committee that led to the impeachment of then Governor Rod Blagojevich.
Durkin enters with some major math problems. Of the 118 seats in the Illinois House of Representatives, the Democrats hold 71 of them. That goes dramatically beyond the simple “Constitutional” majority of 60 votes to pass a bill. It hits the magic threshold of 3/5ths of the chamber, which is considered a “Super” majority, allowing Illinois Speaker of the House Michael Madigan (D-Chicago) to consistently pass legislation with no-Republican votes and even over-ride gubernatorial vetoes. Durkin has to knock that down for his chamber to be relevant.
The cause of this goes back to the 2012 election when the Illinois GOP lost seven house seats due to factors such as Republicans running in districts drawn by the Democrats after the 2010 U.S. Census and Illinois “favorite son” President Barack Obama leading the ticket in his reelection bid. Navigating that landscape, while also dealing with being tremendously out-spent by their Democratic counterparts, presented a “perfect storm” for the Illinois House (and Senate) GOP. In terms of baby steps, Durkin has to have a net pick-up of a couple of seats with an ultimate goal of turning swinging 13 net-seats during his upcoming tenure as the head of the GOP’s Jr. chamber in Springfield.
Jim Durkin presents a different face for the Illinois House GOP. His potential weakness inside his party may be his biggest strength with the general electorate – he is considered a moderate. He also may be able to tap into the “maverick” persona of U.S. Senator John McCain. Durkin was the state chairman for McCain initial presidential campaign in 2000 and in 2007 served as both the Illinois co-chairman and national legislative co-chairman for McCain’s second presidential run. To lure independent Illinois voters, Durkin may be able to tap into that less polarizing side of the GOP personality.
Finally, one of Tom Cross’ biggest problems was funding. The Illinois House Republicans’ coffers may be as low as $25,000 with an election cycle right around the corner. Durkin has two advantages. He has a reputation for being able to squeeze major dollars out of the Chicago metropolitan area business community and he should get some assistance from the new Reform PAC, which was officially filed on Monday of this week. Reform PAC will start with $110,000 in seed money with an immediate goal of growing to $200,000. It is backed by businessmen, such as Bruce Rauner, a GOP candidate to replace Governor Pat Quinn next year. But, it will only be used for Illinois House General Election races. It may not be the “silver bullet” to get the Republicans out of the “super-minority” but at least it is a start.