The historical significance of last week's votes to elect a new Senate President and a new Senate Republican Leader is difficult to overstate.
For starters, replacing both chamber leaders at once is an extreme Springfield rarity. According to Kent Redfield, one of the state's leading political scientists, the last time this happened was 34 years ago.
Also, Sen. Christine Radogno (R-Lemont) became the first woman in all of Illinois history to lead a legislative party caucus.
The historical novelties, however, pale in comparison to the historical imperatives.
The state's political process has just plain stopped functioning. Illinois' unemployment rate is soaring, yet no job-creating capital construction bill can be passed. The state's budget deficit is eye-popping, yet nobody is seriously talking to each other about a real solution. Hundreds of important bills have died because of a fight over administrative rules. Gridlock is too kind a word. It's as if the government has developed a terminal case of toxic shock syndrome.
As you probably know by now, the Senate Democrats unanimously selected Sen. John Cullerton as the new Senate President last week.
Cullerton vowed to do his best to end the gridlock. He has a long personal and political relationship with House Speaker Michael Madigan and he lives just two blocks away from Gov. Rod Blagojevich.
His campaign for the presidency was a work of art. For instance, he raised almost a million dollars between early September and early November, which impressed just about everybody.
But it was his persistence, patience, evenhandedness and hard work which seemed to pay off the most. A Republican friend of Cullerton's said he spoke with Cullerton on the phone the Sunday evening before the vote. Cullerton couldn't talk long because he had just pulled up to Democratic Sen. Ira Silverstein's house for a private meeting. That's just one example of many to illustrate how much effort Cullerton put into this contest.
There were no threats of retribution from Cullerton, even when things got nasty.
Last Wednesday, one of Gov. Rod Blagojevich's most favored black Chicago activists held a press conference with a few Champaign-area ministers to pressure Sen. Michael Frerichs (D-Champaign) to vote for Sen. James Clayborne for Senate President. But the specter of a Chicago-based Blagojevich ally traveling to Champaign to urge a local legislator to vote for an East St. Louis Senator who was privately backed by the horribly unpopular governor didn't go over too well at the Statehouse.
"If that's how Clayborne is campaigning for Senate President, how would he govern?" several Senate Democrats wondered.
Also last week, voters in the districts of four Cullerton supporters - Sens. Michael Frerichs, AJ Wilhelmi, Susan Garrett and Linda Holmes - were hit with robocalls. The negative robocalls, paid for by a downstate Teamsters local on Sen. Clayborne's behalf, were made in direct retaliation for their support of Sen. Cullerton.
Sen. James Clayborne's people claimed that all four had pledged to back Clayborne and had broken their word. That's not how the four Democrats saw it, and tempers flared in the hours leading up to the president vote. Several Democrats demanded some sort of retribution against Clayborne, including withdrawing Cullerton's offer of Senate Majority Leader. But Cullerton calmed the waters and made the offer anyway. Clayborne accepted.
The calm under pressure, the disavowal of the political retribution of the recent past and the willingness to bring opponents into the circle are all extremely positive signs. Cullerton said last week that his first priority is to unstick the capital construction bill and then move on to education funding. Both of those issues have taken a back seat to the politics of vindictiveness that have plagued the Statehouse for years.
The road will not be easy, of course. Cullerton remembers well how Speaker Madigan undercut Senate President Phil Rock back in the day, because Cullerton was in Madigan's war room at the time.
Madigan prefers junior partners, as does the governor, but Cullerton's mandate is to remake the Senate into an independent yet cooperative body. That means Cullerton must be an equal partner at the table. And the admirable skills which got him this new job will have to be stretched to the limit if he hopes to succeed.
Failure is not an option.
Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and thecapitolfaxblog.com.