Durkin looks to ease divides in leader's role
A day after being named the next Illinois House Republican leader, state Rep. Jim Durkin of Western Springs said the keys to expanding his historically small GOP caucus in Springfield include healing party rifts and winning in the suburbs.
Durkin's key opponent for the job disagreed sharply with him over one of the state's biggest financial issues. But that battle over cutting teachers' and state workers' pension benefits won't be the last issue on which Republican lawmakers will disagree.
"At the end of the day, we're Republicans," Durkin said. "I will never make it personal."
Durkin said he's "nowhere near" deciding which other Republicans to bring onto his leadership team. He will take over for Illinois House Republican Leader Tom Cross of Oswego in the next few weeks. Cross is stepping down and is expected to announce he is running for state treasurer.
One of Durkin's top jobs will be winning back seats his party lost in the suburbs in 2012 and finding the money to do it. In 2012, Illinois Democrats rolled to a 71-47 House advantage after winning almost every competitive race in the Chicago area.
Durkin has come into the job at a time when the process of recruiting candidates for 2014 is well under way.
"You have to accept what came to you," Durkin said. "You can't worry about the timing of it."
Durkin, a former prosecutor, was born in Chicago, lived in Westchester and now lives in Western Springs. He started his Illinois House career in 1995 and served until 2003, leaving after winning the 2002 primary for U.S. Senate against state Sen. Jim Oberweis and others. He lost to the similarly named Sen. Dick Durbin and returned to the Illinois House in 2006.
Recently, Durkin worked on fixes to the then-underfunded College Illinois prepaid tuition program and was on the committee that started the impeachment of former Gov. Rod Blagojevich.
He said his statewide race and time living in the suburbs means he can help his party mates win here.
"I have a pretty good sense of how people react to certain issues," he said.
On pension reform, Durkin has voted for a sweeping package of benefit cuts backed by House Speaker Michael Madigan, a Chicago Democrat, while Rep. Raymond Poe of Springfield, a downstate favorite for House GOP leader, voted against each of the pension reform bills that came to the House floor this year.
Durkin is like Cross in that respect and might be expected to follow the same path on an issue that has not only split the two parties but also has caused internal fights among both Republicans and Democrats.
Still, Durkin said he thinks it's important not to use his new power to penalize any individual lawmakers for their views.
"Once we get this one issue off the plate, there will be another one," he said.