What happens when two suburban lawmakers defy Rauner, Madigan
With two of the state's strongest personalities repeatedly clashing over the past two years, there's often little room for disparate voices in Illinois government.
House Speaker Michael Madigan enjoys almost unfettered support from rank-and-file Democrats, while Republicans are in lockstep with Gov. Bruce Rauner - partisanship contributing to a budget standoff that has no end in sight.
Two suburban lawmakers buck that trend. Republican state Rep. David McSweeney of Barrington Hills and Democratic state Rep. Scott Drury of Highwood have openly defied their leaders, acts aided by their personal wealth and independent-minded districts.
But going it alone is not without costs, big or small.
When engraved clocks by Irish-American designer Simon-Pearce were handed out to the rest of the Democratic caucus earlier this year, Drury didn't get one.
A former U.S. prosecutor, Drury in January advertised his refusal to vote for Madigan for speaker, saying the state “really isn't a representative democracy anymore” with the powerful Chicago Democrat presiding over the House for all but two of the last 34 years.
Subsequently, Drury was removed from his spot on the judiciary committee. Most bills Drury has sponsored this session have landed in a sort of legislative purgatory - the rules committee - and would emerge only if Madigan and Democratic leaders allowed it, something Drury has pointed out in news releases.
“You've got to publicize what's going on,” Drury said. “You saw in the last presidential election that people are starting to care.”
Drury says he gets praise back home in his North suburban district, but at the Capitol, he's ostracized and spends much of his free time on his own. During Democratic caucus meetings, he appears sullen and withdrawn and often leaves the party sessions early when Democrats begin discussing upcoming votes on important bills.
McSweeney rarely attends caucus meetings at all.
“The governor doesn't need to tell me what to do. And that's what the Republican caucus is, getting marching orders from the governor's office,” said McSweeney, an investment specialist.
Instead, McSweeney spends his time trying to drum up votes for the bills he hopes to pass and dining with Democratic lawmakers and close confidants of Madigan. He's made a habit of inviting members of the black caucus, including Democratic state Rep. Christian Mitchell of Chicago, to town hall meetings in his Northwest suburban district.
Unlike Drury's experience, where many of his bills have died in committee, McSweeney said he hasn't been retaliated upon by the GOP, and his bills - which also depend on Democratic leaders calling them for a vote - have tended to pass by wide, bipartisan margins. They include legislation that prohibits local government officials from using taxpayer money for entertainment expenses and limits their travel and meal allowances. A push for a constitutional amendment to eliminate the office of lieutenant governor passed the House in 2013 and 2016, but it hasn't moved further.
McSweeney says he admired the relationship between Republican President Ronald Reagan and Democratic House Speaker Tip O'Neill during the 1980s.
“My mindset down here is to build relationships,” McSweeney said. “This political war between the governor and the Democrats, that is not what my constituents want.”
The governor's office declined to comment for this story, as did Madigan's office.
Going against their parties has worked out better for some former lawmakers than for others.
Former Democratic state Rep. Jack Franks of Marengo left the legislature last year and was elected chairman of the county board in heavily Republican McHenry County.
But Chicago Democrat Ken Dunkin was rebuked by Barack Obama during the former president's visit to Springfield last year and was defeated in last year's primary by Juliana Stratton, a Madigan-backed opponent. Dunkin's unexplained absence from Springfield during a key vote left Democrats unable to override a veto that would have limited Rauner's control over bargaining with public employee unions.
Charlie Wheeler, a professor at the University of Illinois in Springfield, said the state's method of using cumulative voting and having multiple members represent a single House district until 1980 produced more dialogue and bipartisanship than there is today.
“You got whack-jobs on both ends of the spectrum, but you also had a lot of moderates, a lot of notion to cooperate,” Wheeler said, noting that in 1975, it took 93 different ballots to elect a House speaker, with members finally choosing DuPage County Democrat William Redmond.
“Over the years there have been independent voices standing up to get changes,” Wheeler said, but their numbers are reduced by the larger influence of money in politics.
Both Drury and McSweeney have the financial wherewithal and the help of wealthy friends to fund their campaigns without depending on party leaders for donations. Neither received more than $1,500 from party sources in the last election cycle, Illinois State Board of Elections records show.
Wheeler says such people make the Capitol a healthier place, as long as their mindset is genuine.
“If you're standing up for the needs of your district and you're running counter to the leadership position, that's laudable,” he said. “On the other hand, if you're doing it just to attract attention to yourself, just being a showboat, that's something else. Bottom line, you have to represent your district.”