Thursday, August 29, 2013

House Republicans pick new leader

By Jamey Dunn 

 Illinois House Republicans chose Western Springs Rep. Jim Durkin as their new leader today.

Outgoing House Minority Leader Tom Cross plans to vacate his leadership position to run for a statewide office. It is presumed that Cross will make a bid for state treasurer. He would not confirm that today, only saying that he would make an announcement soon. Cross, who has served in the House since 1993, was considering a run for the attorney general’s office if Attorney General Lisa Madigan ran for a different office. But she decided to run for reelection. Members of Cross’ caucus have been jockeying for his position for months.

Today, Durkin won the job. He was up against Springfield Rep. Raymond Poe, who has served in the House sine 1995. Over the last few days, Poe took hits from critics over his history of receiving campaign support from unions and his stance on pension reform. Poe was one of several Republicans who voted against changes to the pension systems backed by House Speaker Michael Madigan and Cross. “I represent my district well,” Poe said. “I think I’m on the right side of that issue.” Republicans were hit hard in last year’s election, as Democrats won supermajorities in both chambers. Today, party members emphasized unity. During today’s Springfield meeting, which lasted less than an hour, Poe withdrew his bid and made the motion to nominate Durkin for minority leader. According to Republicans who were in the closed-door meeting, no members voted against Durkin. “I didn’t have the votes here today,” Poe said. “One thing about every legislator, we can count. We count over on the House floor every day. We know where our votes are. I knew today that it so happens my vote weren’t here. There’s seven people missing. I think a large part of those was mine. And for the welfare and the unity of the party, I don’t think we need these scrapes, scrabbles whatever you want to call them. I think what we need to be is unified, and the message today is 47 strong.”

Durkin was first sworn into the House in 1995. He served until 2003. He made a failed bid against U.S. Sen. Richard Durbin for Durbin's Senate seat in 2002 and returned to the Illinois House in 2005. “The task is to unite our party in that we are one, we are a solid group of 47 Republicans, and that we are unified. To me that is the most important job that I have right now with our members. We have had some divisiveness in the past, but the fact is, it’s over. And that’s what we heard in this meeting.”

Durkin played a key role in recent high-profile ethics proceedings in the chamber. He served as co-chair of the special House impeachment committee that determined there was enough evidence to move forward with the impeachment of now-incarcerated former Gov. Rod Blagojevich. Durkin and Skokie Democratic Rep. Lou Lang made arguments for expelling Chicago Democratic Rep. Derrick Smith before another special House committee. After Smith was charged with accepting a bribe, the House voted to remove him. But he won the seat back in last year’s election and is now a House member again.

Durkin did not talk much about policy after the vote today. He did reaffirm his opposition to same-sex marriage when asked about his stance. Durkin had once been viewed as a potential “yes” vote by same-sex marriage supporters. He also said that he would not take a stance on pension ideas that are trickling out from a special committee now working to create proposed pension changes until the group has settled on a proposal. "We will work to try and find resolution to the pension problem. I believe it is a priority.” While unity seemed to be the word of the day, Durkin acknowledged that not all House Republicans will share his views, and he said he does not expect them to vote as a bloc on every issue. “We have a very diverse caucus, but we’re going to use that diversity to our advantage this next coming [election] cycle. I’m excited about the prospects of the future,” Durkin said today after the vote.

Durkin said another priority is rebuilding the House Republican election funds, which he said are “limited.” But he acknowledged that it could be a challenge in the short term. “Were talking about an election cycle where you have a very heated governor’s race. There’s going to be a lot of money that’s going to be placed in the governor’s race, so we have to make the best use of every dollar that we have in our campaign operations." Durkin did not name new House leadership today. He said he needs time to decide who will serve in those roles. Poe said he is not seeking a leadership job, which comes with a pay bump, but he would like to play a role on Durkin’s “advisory team.” Poe said his top goal is overcoming the Democrat’s veto-proof majority in the House and electing a Republican governor. “If that combination would happen, we are back at the table as Republicans. And right now they [Democrats] don’t even invite us to the table.” Both Poe and Durkin said they support Sen. Kirk Dillard in the Republican gubernatorial primary.

The competition between Durkin and Poe was framed by some as an upstate versus downstate battle. But after today’s vote, downstate lawmakers said that they were happy with the results. “Being a downstater myself, I think there will be great representation for downstate and issues important to downstate under leader-elect Durkin’s tenure,” said Rep. Dan Brady, a Republican from Bloomington. He said he thought a shake-up could do that caucus good. “He can energize our base more. He can reach out to those that have been supporters in the past that maybe are lukewarm. He can help to calm some of the concerns over the social issues that we all find ourselves in from time to time,” Brady said. “Most importantly, he can take the House Republican organization and move it forward, start building on increasing funds and different things that we need. And he can do that in a variety of ways by bringing in some new people and new ideas.”

 Cross, who is from Oswego, retains the minority leader title. He and Durkin are going to meet over the coming weeks in order to make a smooth transition. Then Durkin will take over the job later next month. Brady said the swap is planned for September 20, but Durkin said it could come sooner. “It will be relatively soon. We’re all working together which is very, very nice,” said Cross. He has said he plans to serve out the rest of his House term. “We’re going to have a transition. It’s going to be orderly. It’s all going to be good. ... I think you’re going to see a good united front when we leave here today.”

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