Rep. John Fritchey's spring legislative session was going extraordinarily well... until he smacked into the last ten days.
Fritchey (D-Chicago) was the prime motivator behind the unprecedented compromise between pro-life and pro-choice groups earlier this session. The two sides had never worked together before Fritchey forced them to the table. It all started when House Speaker Michael Madigan guaranteed the pro-life groups that they would have a floor vote on the "Born Alive Infant Protection Act," a version of which had passed the US Congress with support from Ted Kennedy and Hillary Clinton.
Nearly half the Illinois House signed on as co-sponsors and a floor vote was imminent. Unlike the federal legislation, however, the state bill would have triggered several Illinois criminal laws, and Fritchey tried desperately for days to stop the bill, then finally brokered the historic compromise in his committee.
Fritchey also played a strong behind the scenes role in the passage of Rep. David Miller's groundbreaking payday loan reform legislation. Miller (D-Calumet City) and Fritchey huddled constantly during the machinations, and while Rep. Miller deserves much of the credit, the bill might not have passed without Fritchey's assistance.
In mid-May, Fritchey and Rep. Lou Lang (D-Skokie) teamed up in Fritchey's Judiciary Committee to kill off an attempt by the religious right to water down the new state protections for gays and lesbians. The conservative's proposal was also supported by Speaker Madigan, who removed opponents from the committee and replaced them with hand-picked proponents.
Fritchey and Lang both argued that the proposed amendment, sponsored by GOP Rep. David Reis, was too broadly written. They hammered away with their argument so persuasively that two conservative Democrats, Reps. Kevin McCarthy (D-Orland Park) and Jim Brosnahan (D-Evergreen Park) sided with Fritchey and against the Catholic Church's lobbying arm. The bill never resurfaced.
Like I said, Fritchey was having a pretty good session. A major compromise, a huge victory and the sweet defeat of a hostile bill all in the matter of a few months.
But then, the troubles began. Like many liberals, Fritchey was crestfallen to learn that Speaker Madigan had decided to dump the trial lawyers and push for medical malpractice reform. Fritchey was furious that Madigan would turn his back on one of the Democratic Party's best friends. Even greater, however, was his dismay that the Democrats would abandon the victims of medical malpractice.
"This bill is a misguided effort to respond to changing political winds and itŐs the future victims in Illinois that will be left twisting in those winds,Ó Fritchey said during debate.
But the final straw came when Fritchey learned that Madigan, the governor and Senate President Emil Jones had cut a deal to essentially skip $2.3 billion in state pension payments. Private conversations with Fritchey revealed that he was truly horrified by the proposal's fiscal implications and believed it was absolutely the wrong thing for Democrats to stand for.
Fritchey vowed to make a stand and when Madigan came calling Fritchey said "No way." Madigan asked what Fritchey wanted in trade, but Fritchey said he wouldn't trade for anything.
And that's when the real trouble began. Sen. James DeLeo (D-Chicago) learned about Fritchey's position on the pension bill and commenced applying pressure. The two longtime allies argued all day. Vicious threats were made, nasty counter-threats offered, but when all was said and done Fritchey voted for the bill.
To make matters worse, Fritchey was forced to be the 61st "Yes" vote, when all that was required was 60.
Fritchey was as depressed after that vote as anyone ever remembers him. The brutal reality of Chicago politics finally hit home as it never had before. Friends say he seriously talked of resigning. Others, less sympathetic, shrugged that he should have learned to pick his fights more carefully.
A few days later, Fritchey did something that I've never seen a politician do - he publicly apologized for a vote. Fritchey said he was sorry for voting for the pension skim on ABC7's NewsViews program.
"I wish I hadn't voted for it. I'd like to apologize to the people of Illinois for voting for it," Fritchey told the show's host, Alan Krashesky.
Fritchey did admit that the Democrats didn't have many other alternatives, but at least he started closing the bitter wounds that opened up late in the session. This could very well be a life-changing event. We'll see what happens next spring.
Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter. He can be reached at capitolfax.blogspot.com.