Departing lawmakers lament loss of independence, spike in money in Illinois politics
When a favorite Springfield tradition of Jack Franks' came to a screeching halt, he says he knew it was a signal that it was time to leave office.
"I'm a dinosaur, I understand that now. It hit me in February of this year," said Franks, a McHenry County Democrat known for his independence from party-line votes.
Franks, an 18-year lawmaker, held a yearly casual dinner for new members of the legislature at his Springfield apartment -- where Republicans and Democrats would come over, order takeout and spend the evening talking about how "we can know each other and help each other."
Last winter, he said, Republicans stopped coming, which he saw as a sign of the increasingly partisan nature of state government, driven in part by big-money elections.
Soon, Franks decided to leave office and run for McHenry County Board chair, an office he was sworn into Dec. 5.
Franks was just one of a rush of lawmakers, many from the suburbs, who are leaving Springfield. Their replacements will be sworn in Jan. 11.
"For me it's exhilarating," Franks said of his time as a member of the House. "I think it's our great calling, but for people who want to make real substantive change, I don't see that happening in the short term and that's what fueled my desire to say I'd be better served if I come home and try to help at home."
Former Republican state Sen. Dan Duffy of Lake Barrington quit for a new job, as did Democratic state Sen. Dan Kotowski of Park Ridge and his frequent floor debate partner, GOP state Sen. Matt Murphy of Palatine.
Democratic state Sen. Mike Noland of Elgin ran for Congress and lost in the primary in March, sacrificing his statehouse seat in the process.
Republican state Reps. Ed Sullivan of Mundelein and Mike Tryon of Crystal Lake did not seek re-election in November.
State Rep. Ron Sandack, a Downers Grove Republican, resigned suddenly over the summer, citing "cyber security issues."
Franks, the first to speak out against Rod Blagojevich before the former Democratic governor's conviction on corruption charges, has rankled his party by opposing a proposal to raise income taxes and other budget measures.
He counts himself among the few who were able to finance campaigns without help from party leaders, which he said allowed him independence.
"There are only a few of us who aren't reliant on leadership to fund our campaigns," Franks said.
"There's been so much money come in, it's polarized the process."
Sullivan, of Mundelein, also describes his 12-year tenure as "one of independence."
He broke with Republicans in 2013 to vote for gay marriage, telling fellow members of his caucus they wouldn't have to "bail him out" in the spring primary for his vote.
"I said I would fund my own campaign," he said.
He also bucked his party in voting to decriminalize marijuana and for ending the death penalty.
Like Franks, he says money has become more dominant than ever in state politics, but the ability of GOP Gov. Bruce Rauner -- a wealthy private equity investor -- to match and even outspend Illinois Democratic Party Chair Michael Madigan demonstrates parity for the first time.
"They have people that bankroll them, we have people that bankroll us, and the numbers (of Democrats and Republicans in the legislature) get closer," Sullivan said. "You're seeing the first batch of people elected with this new money on both sides of the aisle, and you certainly hope they'll be independent.
"Time will tell how these newly elected officials will react."
A record amount of money was spent on key races in Illinois this year.
Fifteen legislative races crossed the $2.5 million threshold this fall in total funds raised, according to tallies by the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, with much of the funding coming from Democratic and Republican leadership. Among those races:
• More than $4.9 million was raised in the 20th House race where Republican state Rep. Michael McAuliffe of Chicago defeated Chicago Democrat Merry Marwig. That worked out to $108 a vote for McAuliffe and $111 per vote for Marwig, the organization said.
• A total of $4.85 million was raised In the 62nd House District, where Democratic Rep. Sam Yingling of Grayslake narrowly defeated Republican Rod Drobinski of Wauconda. It broke down into $124 per vote for Yingling and $109 per vote for Drobinski.
• A total of $2.5 million was raised in the 45th House District race, where Wood Dale Republican Christine Winger's campaign spent $57 per vote to defeat Democratic challenger Cynthia Borbas of Carol Stream, with $47 per vote.
• Democratic Sen. Tom Cullerton of Villa Park won re-election over Republican Seth Lewis of Bartlett in the 23rd Senate District, where $4.85 million was raised, or $57 per vote for Cullerton and $56 for Lewis.
Complicating the equation is that lawmakers, just like social service providers and small businesses, haven't been paid for months, with Comptroller Leslie Munger announcing in the spring they'd have to wait in line for payment with everyone who's owed money. That decision is the subject of a lawsuit filed by House Democrats Dec. 2 in Cook County circuit court.
"If the comptroller is allowed to unilaterally decide when and how often General Assembly members receive their salary, the independence of each member ... is threatened," the lawsuit reads.
A look at Illinois' annual Blue Book found that a majority of the 177 members of the General Assembly say they're full-time lawmakers with no other job.
"If you want to be independent, either you're independently wealthy or don't need the job," Franks said. "Those are your choices."