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The Mechanics
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Springfield Thu Dec 18 2014

On Elected School Boards and Horseshoes

I have figured out how Chicago can get an Elected School Board, how the election laws can stop being endlessly rigged, how actual campaign finance reform can become a possibility, how incessant Pay to Play scams can largely be shut down, and how maybe some smidgen of democracy can visit the good people of Illinois.

And get this: all it will take is for just 12 State Representatives to have some guts and stand up for their constituents!

[At this time there will be a short pause to allow the readers to regain their composure.]

Okay, okay, that sounds like an absurdly unrealistic thing to rely upon. But humor me.

Forget that Illinois elected a Republican as Governor. The real power broker is still Michael Madigan, Speaker of the House, Chair of the state Democratic Party, Father of the Attorney General. He's the one who runs the state, and everyone knows it. You didn't really think anybody let Rod Blagojevich actually govern anything, did you?

Since 1983, Madigan has been Speaker of the House all but one term. That means he's been elected Speaker on 15 different occasions. But what does that mean - elected Speaker?

Best as I can tell, almost nobody actually knows what that technically means. The relevant Illinois statute - 25 ILCS 10/1 - doesn't say much about it.

We instead have to turn to the Rules of the House of Representatives. What passes for a formal process is laid out on Page 1, under House Rule 1, excerpted in part:

(a) ... If a quorum of members elected is present, the Secretary of State shall then call for nominations of members for the Office of Speaker. All nominations require a second. When the nominations are completed, the Secretary of State shall direct the Temporary
Clerk to call the roll of the members to elect the Speaker.

(b) The election of the Speaker requires the affirmative vote of a majority of those elected....

What does "affirmative vote of a majority of those elected" mean? It means an outright majority of all members to elect a Speaker. That's 60 votes. If three candidates were to be nominated, and a vote were to be held, and none of the candidates were to receive 60 votes, then nobody would be elected. If nobody were to be elected, then the office would technically be vacant, which would require the entire process to be repeated - perhaps several times.

This might sound highly irregular, but in reality, it is a common practice, most notably followed by presidential conventions. There hasn't been a major party convention which went to multiple ballots in several decades, but historically, there have been several examples. One of the more famous even occurred in Chicago in 1920, giving rise to the term "smoke-filled room". Of course, the Capitol, like all state buildings, is smoke-free now, so... perhaps a horseshoe-filled room instead. Never mind that those things will kill you just as fast as cigarettes. But I digress.

Democrats won 71 out of 118 seats in the House in November, so, okay, that means 71 votes for Madigan, and 47 votes for some Republican, and that's that. But if just 12 Democrats broke ranks - just 12! - that would be enough to deny Madigan a majority. A dozen Democrats with no particular reason to support Madigan could hold up state government indefinitely, maybe extracting concessions along the way. Elected school board, perhaps?

Or maybe make it a baker's dozen. Imagine 13 Democrats actually brokering a deal with the Republicans. That deal might involve fast-tracking an elected school board for Chicago and dismantling a lot of the election law damage Madigan has done over time, much of it designed to wound Republicans, and in the process making a non-Machine Democrat could become Speaker.

Again, this might sound highly irregular. Why would a bunch of legislators who are right of center come together and help elect a Speaker who is to the left of the ostensibly left of center party? What kind of bizarre system would that be? Well, in most of the Western world, it's called a parliamentary system. Sometimes they work quite well. Sometimes they don't. But it couldn't get much worse than the system we have.

It'd be a smart move for the Republicans. Bruce Rauner doesn't want to deal with Mike Madigan any more than he can help it. Even with a more left-leaning Speaker in place, Rauner would probably be in a stronger position vis-a-vis the legislature.

It'd be a smart move for progressive Democrats. Any particularly excessive thing Rauner might try to pull, Democrats would still be able to override a veto. Besides, it's Madigan, not any Republican, who has blocked countless progressive initiatives.

By now you're probably thinking: Wait a minute. I'm a progressive. How can anything that's good for Bruce Rauner be good for me? Or for my kids? These are fair questions.

But consider this: Madigan has been Speaker 30 of the last 32 years. Illinois now ranks dead last in state school funding. Meanwhile, the state still faces a massive pension deficit because so many state budgets - primarily written by Madigan - borrowed heavily against pension funds. Charter expansion? Blocking a vote on an elected school board for Chicago? Forcing through a campaign finance bill that gave him the ability to donate unlimited money? Republicans never got the chance to do anything people didn't like. It was all Madigan and his sycophants.

Now, are 12 Democrats actually going to rise up and block Madigan's reelection? I'd say there's a better chance of the Cubs winning the World Series in 2015.

So maybe this tiny insurrection is a pipe dream. But what I do think is going to happen over the next couple of years is that the rising discontent with the in-it-for-ourselves bunch in Chicago and Springfield will lead to greater opposition. Expect to see more primary challengers, running increasingly well-organized campaigns. You might even see more third party and independent challenges against Madigan's people. While I've previously suggested that although Chicago politics tends to remain predictable, I've also noted that the Machine is nevertheless breaking down in a lot of places. There are blueprints for taking down weak incumbents. Consider Will Guzzardi's victory over Toni Berrios this past March. There are other incumbents with profiles similar to Berrios who you might expect to see progressives targeting.

At the very least, proponents of an elected school board need to wake up and realize that it's Madigan, not Rahm Emanuel, who holds the keys here, and it's going to take knocking out some of Madigan's people to get things to happen in Springfield. Now, running for state rep is in many ways harder than running for alderman. It's a partisan office, the districts are twice as large, and the pay is about half as much. It also sort of requires you to spend actual time in Springfield, which is an understandable turnoff to many. As a result, everybody wants to run for alderman, and a lot of state legislators go completely unopposed for years.

But unless a parliamentary-style quasi-coup breaks out this January, Springfield is going to continue to operate as it typically has. This is not going to help bring an elected school board to Chicago or end pension attacks or anything a lot of people might hope to see. Change needs to come to the Capitol at least as much as City Hall. Ultimately, this means electing new people - people who, in sufficient numbers, will refuse to keep installing Madigan into power. Leading entities like the Chicago Teachers Union need to support more than two candidates for state legislature in 2016. And one lesson from Guzzardi's win is that even the lousiest of incumbents sometimes needs to be challenged four times before being knocked out.

Are progressives willing to go all-in on the municipal elections in February, double down on some runoffs in April, and then turn around and start collecting signatures again in September? That's what the Machine has done for a long time. That's what it's going to take to make positive things happen.

 
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