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Thursday, Sept. 18, 2008 10:08 am

Everybody wants to be Senate President

Senate President Emil Jones began a meeting of his Democratic members not long ago with a playful announcement that, despite what everyone had read and heard, he had no intention of retiring from office. He was joking, of course, but while the joke may have temporarily relieved a bit of tension in the room, there's still plenty of infighting ahead.

Forget about getting the required majority of 30 votes in January to replace Jones as president. The big problem now is just finding 19 votes — a majority of the Democratic caucus. There are almost that many Democratic senators floating their names right now, whether they are really serious or not, so this will take some time.

To give you an example, Sen. Martin Sandoval (D-Chicago), who flirted with supporting John McCain's Republican campaign not that long ago, told reporters recently that colleagues had urged him to consider running. It's doubtful that Sandoval would receive more than one or two votes, but this gives you a good idea of how many people are holding back their votes from the alleged "frontrunners" right now because they have their own dreams of grandeur.

This is probably going to take a while. There is no shortage of egos in the General Assembly, and the Senate Democratic caucus has an overabundance. It will be some time before many are ready to set aside their own fantasies and start actively engaging in the process.

Those egos were at least partly on display during a recent, sometimes stormy meeting of the Senate Black Caucus.

In the end, all caucus members vowed to vote together when it comes time to select a new Senate president, but it took a bit of doing.

On its face, that decision might seem to benefit Sen. James Clayborne (D-East St. Louis), who is supported at the moment by most downstate Democrats and several Black Caucus members. But there is quite a bit of animosity in the Black Caucus towards Clayborne, so this thing isn't over yet.

Some members have mentioned the possibility of a deal with Sen. Don Harmon, a white legislator from Oak Park whose district is half Republican and half African-American. Harmon also apparently has at least some support from some suburban legislators. But there are also reports that at least a couple of Black Caucus members have recently reached out to Sen. John Cullerton, a white Chicagoan with decades of experience who has always been considered one of the frontrunners for the top job. Harmon's original strategy had him laying back until later rounds of voting and emerging as a compromise candidate. Cullerton, one of the early frontrunners, is hoping to wrap things up much sooner than that, as are other candidates, including Sen. Terry Link of Lake County.

But, if the Black Caucus can somehow stay united, and if Clayborne can tie down unanimous support of downstate members (not guaranteed by any means as of yet), he'll have 18 votes, which is pretty darned close to a majority of the Democratic Caucus' 37 seats, unless, of course, the Democrats gain or lose seats in the coming elections.

Something else to keep in mind is that Gov. Rod Blagojevich will hold the gavel when the official Senate election is held next year. Jim Thompson used that power many years ago to temporarily steer the president's election to a Republican, even though the Democrats held the majority. Whether our current governor is above those sorts of shenanigans is anyone's guess at the moment, but it probably has to be taken into account if a potential deadlock continues into the fall and winter.


Rich Miller publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and thecapitolfaxblog.com.

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