It hasn’t all been fun and games, but Senate President John Cullerton, D-Chicago, who announced he plans to retire in January, has certainly added to the fun over the years.
No matter how tense things got at the Statehouse – involving difficult times with governors – I’ve often thought that his sense of humor has served him well as he worked to get along with a diverse group of fellow Democrats as well as Republicans.
Cullerton, 71, surprised the Capitol crowd with his announcement Thursday as the veto session wrapped up that he plans to retire sometime in January.
I remember thinking, back when he was in the House and I would see him get his colleagues laughing, that this Chicago lawyer and politician could make it in stand-up comedy.
“He used to entertain his colleagues and those of us who followed the closing days of the legislative session by doing imitations during the breaks,” said Mike Lawrence, a former Statehouse reporter who later would be press secretary to GOP Gov. Jim Edgar and director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University. “He did some great impressions. My recollection is that he did impressions of (late Chicago) Mayor Richard J. Daley, and that took a fair amount of courage.”
Cullerton served in the House from 1979 to 1991, and has been in the Senate since then, serving as president of the Senate since January 2009.
That tenure as president started on a particularly difficult note, as presiding over the Senate leadership election was Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who had already been impeached by the House. During Cullerton’s first afternoon as president, the Senate adopted rules for the trial that led to the ousting of the governor.
And Cullerton certainly had a serious side during years of legislative standoff with former GOP Gov. Bruce Rauner.
In June 2017, in the last summer of the budget impasse, Cullerton did not appreciate that Rauner was quoted as saying “my wife tells me she hasn’t seen me this happy in 20 years,” which Rauner attributed to his opportunity to serve the people.
“Glad he’s happy, but he shouldn’t be,” Cullerton said at the time. “This is really an embarrassment. We owe $15 billion. We’ve been downgraded. ... There’s people who are not getting breast cancer screenings because of this. ... It’s just sad. It’s totally avoidable.”
Cullerton had reached across the aisle and worked with then-Senate GOP Leader Christine Radogno to come up with a “grand bargain” to end the impasse, but Cullerton blamed Rauner for pulling Republican votes off the compromise.
“During a time when our efforts were challenged on many fronts, we found ways to reach across the aisle,” Cullerton said in his retirement statement last week, calling his work with Radogno on that bargain “one of the highlights of my career.”
Cullerton’s sense of humor was evident in that statement as well. In it, he said he’s been promising his wife, Pam, that he would retire after 39 years of duty, when he reached 70, and when there was a Democratic governor.
“So now, after 41 years in the legislature and 40 years of marriage, I’m finally going to live up to my promise to retire,” he said. “In counting our years of marriage, Pam deducts for the days I spend in Springfield, so she will claim we’ve only been married 30 years. Now all that will come to an end and she will have to give due credit to each day together.”
Lawrence said Cullerton’s tenure as a lawmaker is noteworthy for his advocacy of public policy issues – for things like seat belts and car seats, and against tobacco and smoking. And, Lawrence added, Cullerton has been effective in rounding up needed votes to get things passed.
Of course, the Statehouse has been rattled in recent weeks and months by allegations of corruption among some lawmakers – not the Senate president. Will that tarnish Cullerton’s legacy?
“I don’t know about his legacy, but it certainly has made his life more uncomfortable,” Lawrence said. “It can’t be much fun to be running the Senate and (to be) heavily involved in the legislature when you have signs (of) a potentially ... explosive situation.”
Speculation began almost immediately as to who might succeed Cullerton as president, mostly senators from the Chicago area. They include Sens. Don Harmon of Oak Park; Kimberly Lightford of Maywood; Heather Steans, Tony Munoz, Elgie Sims and Emil Jones III of Chicago; and Melinda Bush of Grayslake. Also being mentioned is Sen. Andy Manar, D-Bunker Hill, who represents part of Springfield.
For Mayor Pete
Lisa Badger, who was elected to the Springfield Park Board in April, is hoping to win another election – to be a delegate to the Democratic National Convention in Milwaukee July 13-17.
Badger is part of a slate in the 13th Congressional District to be delegates pledged to Pete Buttigieg, now the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, for president.
Badger told me she was impressed with Buttigieg when she saw him speak just more than a year ago, when the candidate known as Mayor Pete was a last-minute replacement to keynote a State Fair Democrat Day brunch hosted by the Illinois Democratic County Chairs’ Association. Former Vice President Joe Biden had been scheduled, but had to cancel due to laryngitis.
Badger started researching Buttigieg, asked about him when talking to a friend of hers who served with Buttigieg in the military, and started participating in discussions with the campaign.
“It is very refreshing to have a candidate or a politician speak in the manner in which he speaks,” she said. “He doesn’t yell at people. He is eloquent.”
If the Democratic primary were held now, Badger said, she would vote for Buttigieg, but she also said that in the general election in 2020, she will support the Democrat that receives the nomination.
Petitions from people seeking to be delegates will be filed Jan. 2 and 3.
Contact Bernard Schoenburg: firstname.lastname@example.org, 788-1540, twitter.com/bschoenburg.