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posted: 3/28/2010 12:01 AM

Sheila Simon wins Dem nomination for Illinois lieutenant governor

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  • Sheila Simon

    Sheila Simon
    Associated Press

By Timothy Magaw

SPRINGFIELD - The Illinois Democratic Party took Gov. Pat Quinn's lead and officially declared Sheila Simon, the daughter of one of the governor's reform-minded political heroes, as the party's nominee for lieutenant governor.

She easily won the nomination Saturday with most suburban members of the Democratic Party's central committee siding with the governor's choice.

"Given these odd set of circumstances, you would naturally give the governor a great deal of leeway, and Sheila Simon is an outstanding pick," said John Nelson, who represents the 16th Congressional District on the committee.

Simon, 49, is the daughter of the late U.S. Sen. Paul Simon, a former lieutenant governor himself. She's a law school professor at Southern Illinois University and served as a Carbondale city council member. She lost a 2007 bid for mayor.

While Democratic officials have gone to lengths not to criticize Simon, Quinn's handling of the selection created rifts.

The lieutenant governor nomination was available to run alongside Quinn because the voters' pick, Chicago pawnbroker Scott Lee Cohen, withdrew amid revelations that he had been accused of holding a knife to his girlfriend's throat, abusing steroids and failing to pay child support.

The decision on a replacement rested solely with the Democratic Party's central committee, which opened the process for anyone who wanted to apply. More than 200 did and the field was narrowed to 17. Those finalists were invited to a final session Saturday in Springfield.

Meanwhile Quinn, who is not a committee member, launched his own recruitment effort.

First Quinn wanted Hoffman Estates resident Tammy Duckworth. But she declined. Then Quinn sought Lake Forest state Sen. Susan Garrett, sending a driver to help her get to last week's interview sessions and several local meetings.

Initially considered the front-runner, Garrett opposed Quinn's tax hike and learned midweek she no longer had Quinn's backing. She skipped Saturday's interviews.

Then there's state Rep. Art Turner, a long time House member from Chicago who'd finished second in the primary. Turner had the backing of numerous black politicians and political groups who said with the top pick out, the vacant nomination should go to the second place finisher - Turner.

Quinn announced Simon as his preference on Friday, setting up what some feared would be a showdown with the central committee should it look elsewhere.

"I picked the person I thought would be the best running mate for our campaign and all of Illinois," Quinn said.

So while Quinn gets the nominee he wanted, he now has no shortage of Democratic state lawmakers displeased with how he handled it, lawmakers whose support the governor needs.

"It's not a reflection on Sheila Simon, but the whole process stinks," said state Sen. Terry Link, a Waukegan Democrat who ran and then applied for the job, but opted not to attend interview sessions. "I think I'm speaking for a lot of people, not just myself."

State Democratic Party Chairman Michael Madigan acknowledged as much.

"There'll be fence-mending everywhere - that's part of the process," he said.

Quinn, and other Democrats, hope Simon brings needed gender and regional balance facing a GOP ticket of Bloomington state Sen. Bill Brady and Edwardsville businessman Jason Plummer. Rich Whitney of Carbondale is the Green Party nominee for governor with running mate Don Crawford from St. Elmo.

The cache of the Simon name shouldn't hurt in Democratic circles, though Simon insisted she's more than just Paul Simon's daughter.

"A famous name is not enough. Voters shouldn't stop there. I hope to meet with people across the state of Illinois, and give them the opportunity to know me on my own ground," she said.

Several suburban residents were among the finalists, including former deputy treasurer Raja Krishnamoorthi from Hoffman Estates and DuPage County Board member Dirk Enger.

For the time being, however, there is no lieutenant governor. It's been vacant since Quinn ascended to the governor's post following Rod Blagojevich's ouster last year.

At the Capitol, lawmakers have suggested pairing the governor and lieutenant governor in the primary or doing away with the office altogether.

The lieutenant governor, paid $135,669 a year, commands an office budget of roughly $2.5 million with 29 staff members. Although the position is largely ceremonial, it oversees the Rural Bond Bank and Main Street program, among others.

Daily Herald staff writer John Patterson contributed to this report.