After the Illinois House Republicans met late last month in Springfield to elect a new caucus leader, several members gathered at a local watering hole to toast their top dog, Rep. Jim Durkin, R-Western Springs.
Notably, several House Republicans who backed the candidacy of Rep. Raymond Poe, R-Springfield, showed up as well and heartily shared in the festivities.
And so, a leadership battle that for a while looked to be heading down a bitterly negative path ended with smiles all around.
Durkin managed to pull off the impossible.
After the failed 1991 ouster attempt of House GOP Leader Lee Daniels, 11 of the 13 coup plotters fled the House within 2 years, either for the Senate or for other jobs. They had no choice. Retribution was in the air.
When Daniels announced he would be stepping aside 10 years later, a months-long feud erupted between Reps. Tom Cross and Art Tenhouse, with the downstater Tenhouse coming out on the losing end.
The fight got personal and emotional, and lots of members were put in highly uncomfortable positions.
The memories of those fights are strong with those who were around back then, and veterans on both sides have tried to help steer this battle away from the abyss ever since Cross announced that he would be stepping aside and running for state treasurer.
Durkin had a reputation among some of his fellow House Republicans as being aloof and even kind of a jerk – his former Cook County prosecutor tendencies have never completely left him. But Durkin patiently traveled the state, meeting with anybody who would sit down with him, and eventually managed to assuage those fears. As a result, he walked into the caucus meeting with far more than the 24 votes he needed to win.
Poe gave what many members said was the speech of his life during the meeting. Poe passionately argued for peace and unity while putting Durkin’s name into nomination. Durkin was elected by acclamation.
Durkin had been a member of Tom Cross’ leadership team, but he’s much better known as being policy oriented. He’s also politically ambitious. He lost a U.S. Senate race in 2002 to Dick Durbin and chaired both of John McCain’s Illinois presidential campaigns.
Durkin was gearing up for an attorney general bid when Cross blindsided him with his own desire for the office. Durkin almost immediately switched gears and focused on the leadership job, which helped box Cross out and forced him to find another job after Lisa Madigan decided to stay put.
Durkin and his team have promised there will be no retribution. There’s a desperate need for unity in that caucus, and pretty much everybody gets it.
If he can suppress those prosecutorial attitude issues, work harder than he ever has, and stay focused and calm while Madigan rattles his cage, Durkin has what it takes to be an effective leader.
Time will tell, but, so far, this looks like a good move by the House GOP.