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Thursday, Sept. 10, 2015 12:01 am

Dunking the Democrats

Rep. Esther Golar (D-Chicago)
There was a reason why state Rep. Esther Golar (D-Chicago) showed up late for session last Wednesday.

She’s been quite ill.

Unbeknownst to many of her colleagues, Rep. Golar was brought into the Statehouse Wednesday afternoon via wheelchair. With a weak and halting voice, Golar asked for assistance putting on a light jacket while chatting with a smattering of well-wishers before bravely walking to her seat on the House floor.

She told friends that she hadn’t eaten solid food in three weeks, although she didn’t say what had made her so ill. In desperate need of intravenous fluid, Golar eventually had to be taken to a Springfield hospital.

Through it all, the six-term South Side legislator said she absolutely had to attend session because she knew it was important, not just to help override the governor’s veto of AFSCME’s now infamous “no strike” bill, but to have her say on all the other overrides and important measures.

A whole lot of bills went down in flames last Wednesday because Rep. Ken Dunkin (D-Chicago) decided not to cut short his trip to New York and skipped the session. Numerous override motions failed by a single vote, as well as a bill designed to reverse the governor’s 90 percent cut to child care services.

Quite a few Democratic legislators were furious at their colleague. Some sent him text messages to express their displeasure after their bills went down to defeat. He had no empathy in reply, despite the fact that tens of thousands of Illinoisans, from struggling working mothers to unionized employees, will be impacted.

While it’s true that the AFSCME bill, which would have prevented a strike or a gubernatorial lock-out, received only 68 of the 71 required for passage, House Speaker Michael Madigan told reporters that if Dunkin had been in town all Democrats would have voted for it. However, Rep. Scott Drury, the sole “No” vote in the Democratic caucus, denied that he would’ve ever voted to override when asked by the Sun-Times. Rep. Jack Franks voted “Present.”

When I asked whether Dunkin’s committee chairmanship was now in danger, Madigan said he had no plans yet to punish him. Madigan’s members were not so quick to forgive, however, and several said they hoped for some sort of retaliation.

That could get tricky, though. The fact is that the House only has 71 Democrats so Dunkin’s vote will be needed in the future. And if organized labor goes on the attack in the spring primary, they’d better not lose.

Besides, if Madigan follows his usual path, he’ll ride to Dunkin’s rescue if the incumbent does draw a primary challenger. There is no better way to ensure a member’s undying gratitude than pulling his sorry behind out of a raging political fire.

The governor’s top people flatly denied that they offered Dunkin anything in exchange for his no-show. Rauner worked harder than he ever had to defeat the override motion. Greg Hinz at Crain’s Chicago Business reports that sources told him Gov. Rauner attended a Dunkin fundraiser this summer. But AFSCME Council 31 contributed $2,000 to Dunkin’s campaign fund in June.

Aside from Rep. Dunkin’s unexcused (and perhaps inexcusable) absence, the real problem here is twofold.

First, a large number of House Republicans voted somebody else’s conscience (Gov. Rauner’s) rather than their own, or that of their districts. Or they wimped out and cast yet another “Present” vote or didn’t vote at all.

More importantly, though, AFSCME crafted a purely partisan power play. Instead of bringing friendly Republicans into the fold, the union relied on the Democratic leaders to handle everything. And in the process a whole lot of Democratic suburbanites were hung out to dry by their leaders.

This was, in other words, a typical Illinois Democratic move. In that world, “bipartisanship” too often means Republicans are forced to vote for Democratic bills as is.

Just look at last Wednesday’s floor action. Instead of accepting some of the governor’s relatively minor amendatory vetoes, the Democrats instead chose to override him and failed miserably. All those underlying bills – encompassing hundreds of hours of work – are now dead.

So, maybe Dunkin unintentionally did his Democratic colleagues a favor. He showed them that their power isn’t as great as they thought it was. The absence of a single legislator completely undermined their quest to send messages of total defiance to the Republican governor. Whether they like it or not, Wednesday’s abject failures showed yet again that Illinois is no longer a one-party state.

Hopefully some Democrats paid attention.

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

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