Op-Ed: Do 16 House Democrats Possess the Political Courage to Force a Change in Leadership?

The following op-ed appeared as a guest commentary piece in The Daily Line on August 19:

The indictments keep coming. Last week Senator Terry Link joined former State Rep. Luis Arroyo, former State Senator Martin Sandoval and Senator Tom Cullerton on the list of disgraced lawmakers charged with criminal wrong-doing in just the last year. The Speaker of the House, identified in federal documents as “Public Official A”, appears to be at the epicenter of the federal investigation into political corruption in Illinois, and the US Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois has assured us that his work is not done. More indictments are coming. You can count on it.

Sadly, indictments for bribery, tax fraud, embezzlement, and the like are nothing new here. Illinois is home to five Governors who have gone to prison. Other former statewide office holders have also done time for federal crimes, and our current Auditor General Frank Mautino-the state’s chief financial watchdog- remains under investigation for shady campaign spending practices. 

When is enough, enough? When will elected lawmakers decide they’re tired of Illinois being known as “the corrupt state”? When will members of the majority party band together in high numbers to stand up to their leadership and demand change?

Last week a group of Senate and House Democrats held a press conference, where they outlined a package of ethics reforms. Noticeably missing from this small coalition were the highest-ranking members of Mike Madigan’s leadership team. Also missing from this press conference was an acknowledgement that almost all of their “new” proposals were filed months ago by House Republicans.

No legislators lobbying for other levels of government? Deputy Republican Leader Demmer filed HB 3947 in October 2019. Revolving door policies to prevent legislators from leaving office one day and lobbying their colleagues the next? Reps. McDermed, Bennett, Grant and Wilhour filed six bills in that area. Increased disclosure requirements for outside income earned by lawmakers? Leader Durkin and Rep. McDermed filed legislation to address that. Increased power for the Legislative Inspector General? Rep. Wilhour has a bill that does just that. Ending the legislative staff exemption from the Human Rights Act? We had a bill for that in the 100th GA. Term limits for Leaders? House Republicans amended caucus rules in 2018 to include term limits for the House Republican Leader.

During their press conference, Democrats did not call for a special session. No one asked Governor Pritzker to call us back to take up their bills. Instead, the group said their bills should be heard in veto session, which takes place after the fall election.

Until Democrats insist on a special session on ethics, press conferences like the one last week appear to be nothing more than attempt by Democrats to find political cover during tumultuous times. Time and time again we’ve seen Democrats talk the talk on ethics reform, but when it comes time for action, their efforts are weak or nonexistent. Look at the Joint Commission on Ethics & Lobbying Reform. We haven’t met since March 5; not in person; not on Zoom. Republicans on that commission have asked repeatedly for that group to reconvene. The response? Silence.

House Republican calls for ethics reforms and a special session on ethics fall on deaf ears. Democrats, its up to you. You need to take control of your party and demand change. These weak overtures with no action behind them make a nice press splash, but do nothing to force change. It takes 60 votes to unseat the Speaker and House Republicans will provide the first 44. Do 16 House Democrats possess the political courage to force this change?