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Thursday, March 25, 2010 01:02 am

Picking Quinn’s running mate

Inside the process to replace Scott Lee Cohen

As the Democratic Party of Illinois prepares to nominate a candidate for lieutenant governor, party leaders assure the public that the process is “open and transparent.”

But few people outside the process know how the decision will be made, and even fewer know why the process is even necessary.

After the Feb. 2 primary election in which Chicago pawnbroker Scott Lee Cohen won the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor, Cohen’s past issues with alleged domestic abuse and steroid use prompted him to withdraw from the race, leaving questions about who would replace him.

Some people suggested giving the slot to state representative Art Turner, a longtime Democrat from Chicago and a close second-place finisher to Cohen.

But that is not called for in the state’s election laws, says Steve Brown, spokesman for the Illinois House Democrats and House Speaker Michael Madigan.

“The law really doesn’t require that or provide that direction, so I think it will be up to the committee,” Brown says.

Brown says the state’s election code calls on the Democratic Party of Illinois’ State Central Committee to pick a replacement. Shortly after Cohen withdrew on Feb. 7, the party began accepting applications from Illinois citizens eager to take his place on the general election ballot in November.

“We’ve opted to put this application process in place so that there’s a broader involvement of the people in Illinois to fill the ballot vacancy,” Brown says.

More than 260 people applied – some admittedly not even Democrats – though some have withdrawn from the race, and many others have been weeded out during regional meetings on March 20 at which applicants addressed the committee to explain their qualifications. Those applicants who didn’t show up were disqualified, and the committee members pared down the list from there.

“We want to find the strongest candidate to compliment the rest of the ticket  and win an election in November to serve the duties of the office,” Brown says.

The party’s bylaws call for the 38-member committee to decide by a weighted vote, which Brown says will be held on March 27. The committee will choose from the 17 applicants on the pared-down list, including Rep. Art Turner and two other candidates from the lieutenant governor primary, as well as Sen. David Koehler, D-Peoria, Sen. Iris Martinez, D-Chicago, and Raja Krishnamoorthi, the second-place finisher in the Democratic primary for state comptroller.

Brown says the committee’s vote will be weighted by the number of Democratic votes cast for lieutenant governor in each of Illinois’ 19 Congressional districts during the primary. That means the largest votes will be cast by U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush and state Rep. Constance Howard, representing the first Congressional district with 9.7 percent of the vote. The second largest share of votes – 9.5 percent – go to U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. and Chicago 34th ward alderman Carrie Austin.

Springfield is divided between the 17th, 18th and 19th Congressional districts, meaning committee members representing Springfield will wield a combined 11.4 percent of the vote.

The applicants were vetted with background checks, Brown says, though he added the only applicants automatically eliminated were those who didn’t meet the constitutional requirements for statewide office: anyone younger than 25 years, not a United States citizen or an Illinois citizen for the three years preceding the election.

In light of the Cohen debacle, Madigan has proposed an amendment to the Illinois constitution that would eliminate the lieutenant governor post. That measure is currently awaiting a vote on the House floor.

“The whole debate about Mr. Cohen stepping aside has elevated the debate about whether you need the office or not,” Brown says. “I think the Speaker believes that the best way to test that is to consider the resolution he’s introduced, and if it passes, there will be a referendum in November to let the voters decide.”

Contact Patrick Yeagle at pyeagle@illinoistimes.com.
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