Illinois Senate President Emil Jones has never been fully appreciated as a legislative leader. Jones, who announced his retirement last week after years at the helm, has a manner of speaking which leads far too many people to assume that he is not intelligent. Nothing could be further from the truth. He has been a supremely crafty tactician, who, despite all the bad raps and his recent blunders, has won far more than his share of legislative battles. He is literally a larger than life character.
Yet, there's little doubt that Jones has been the most publicly vilified legislative leader in memory, particularly in the past two years.
His constant and unwavering support for Rod Blagojevich, the most unpopular (and most investigated) governor in the nation, certainly contributed to the shwacking. Jones stood by the governor's hugely controversial Gross Receipts Tax idea last year when everyone else had abandoned it and when it had become clear that the proposal had probably killed off his professed life's dream of enacting permanent, real education funding reform.
Jones appeared to brazenly block electric utility rate relief at the behest of his buddies at ComEd. He stood by the governor throughout a long, bitter overtime session last year and this year. His family benefitted from pay raises and no-bid contracts from the Blagojevich administration. He allegedly lied to House Speaker Michael Madigan about upholding last year's budget agreement when he refused to override Blagojevich's vetoes that targeted House Democrats and Senate Republicans for political punishment.
Jones blocked a constitutional amendment for recall of public officials and deliberately slow-walked an ethics reform bill at the governor's behest. He railed against attempts to block a pay raise for lawmakers, infamously telling reporters that he needed that raise and some food stamps. And he just managed to replace himself on the November ballot with his son.
Sen. Jones has certainly become a liability for his members. You can't get thumped for all of those outrages on an almost daily basis without at least some mud splashing on your rank and file. So his announcement last week that he would give up the Senate presidency may help ease the pain of some of his incumbents.
The retirement's legislative impact is not completely clear. It's thought that Speaker Madigan and maybe even some of Jones' own members will want to put off a multi billion dollar capital construction plan until Jones leaves office. Why cut a deal now when a better one might be concocted after January?
There's a legitimate concern in some circles about what this retirement announcement may mean for Jones' fundraising. He is allowed to withdraw about $577,000 from his personal campaign fund because of a clause inserted into a mid 1990s ethics bill. That would leave his bank balance at just over $1 million - about a half million shy of Senate Republican Leader Frank Watson's June 30th total. Except for his most loyal friends, it's difficult to see how Jones can easily add to that account now that he has made himself a lame duck.
Members were assured that there would be plenty of money in the campaign fund for incumbents, but Watson and his cohorts have to be breathing just a bit easier now that Jones has taken himself out of the game.
Meanwhile, loads of candidates are engaged in the Jones succession battle. It's every man (literally, because there are no women in the race as I write this) for himself. And it's far too early to make any predictions of how things will play out. There are no locks, there are no true frontrunners. This thing is wide open.
Also, word is that some candidates are already beginning to reach out to Senate Republicans in an effort to pad their margins and reach the magic number of 30 required to win the presidency - a majority of those elected in the entire Senate, not just among Democrats.
But forget about those 30 votes today. The big problem now is just finding 19 votes - a majority of the Democratic caucus. Almost that many Democrats are currently floating their names for president.
There is certainly no shortage of egos in the General Assembly, and the Senate Democratic caucus has an overabundance. It will likely take some time before many are ready to set aside their vanity candidacies and start actively engaging in the process.
Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and thecapitolfaxblog.com.