End and Means: Departing House Members May Set a Record for Turnover

Nov 1, 2013

Charles N. Wheeler III
Credit WUIS/Illinois Issues
“You can’t tell the players without a scorecard.”

That refrain, oft-repeated at ballparks across the land in bygone days, may take on new meaning when voters go to the polls a year from now to elect a new Illinois House of Representatives.

With the deadline still weeks away for filing petitions to qualify for the March primary ballot, the House seems on pace to set a record for voluntary turnover in the first election after redistricting.

As of mid-October, 10 incumbent representatives had announced they would not seek re-election to the seats they won in 2012. Three already had left their posts, for a guaranteed total of at least 13 new names greeting primary voters.

The attrition rate has been especially keen among House Republicans, with 11 bailing, almost a quarter of the GOP’s 47-member ranks, including erstwhile leader Tom Cross of Oswego, who’s running for state treasurer.

Others bowing out include Republicans Brad Halbrook of Shelbyville, Kay Hatcher of Yorkville, Renee Kosel of New Lenox, JoAnn Osmond of Antioch and Timothy Schmitz of Batavia, and Democrat Naomi Jakobsson of Urbana. Already gone are Rep. Jim Sacia, a Republican from Pecatonia, following a self-imposed six-term limit, and Rep. Pam Roth, a Republican from Morris, whose husband was transferred to Texas. Rep. Deb Mell, a Chicago Democrat, resigned in July to replace her father, the legendary Dick Mell, on the Chicago City Council.

Besides Cross, other GOP incumbents seeking to move up the ladder include Rep. Jil Tracy of Quincy, a lieutenant governor candidate, and congressional hopefuls Mike Bost of Murphysboro and Darlene Senger of Naperville. 

Of course, strong turnover is expected in the election following decennial redistricting, when many veteran lawmakers choose to call it quits rather than start pretty much from scratch in a lot of brand-new territory. Thirty-three of the 118 representatives elected in 2010, for example, were not seeking another House term last year after new district maps were drawn based on the 2010 census. Sadly, death claimed Republican Rep. Mark Beaubien of Barrington Hills in July 2011; several other incumbents ran for the Senate or for other elective posts, but most retired from active politics.

However, once a lawmaker has survived his or her initial test on new turf, the typical pattern is to keep running, and many usually experience a “sophomore surge,” says Chris Mooney, director of the University of Illinois’ Institute of Government and Public Affairs. “You run, you win, the second one you win by a higher margin, you settle in, work the constituency, you’re the incumbent now, so your opponent appears weaker.”

Illinois’ history reflects that pattern, with relatively few winners in the election after redistricting choosing to step down.

A decade ago, for example, 12 House members who were elected in 2002 did not seek to keep their seats in 2004, but only one — former Rep. Rosemary Kurtz, a Republican from Crystal Lake — chose to retire. Four joined the fledgling Blagojevich administration in 2003, and another was appointed to the appellate court. Three moved to the Senate, while three others died in office. 

Ten years earlier, only 13 incumbents chose not to defend the seats they won in 1992 under a GOP-drawn map. But only six retired. Two had died before the 1994 campaign season began, and five others ran for other offices. Although Democrats survived the Republican map in 1992 to hold a 67-51 House majority, the GOP roared back in 1994, knocking off 12 Democratic incumbents and picking up an open seat to gain a solid 64-54 majority for the following two years — the only break in House Speaker Michael Madigan’s 30-year tenure as the House’s presiding officer.

Go back even further, and the numbers are similar. Only a half dozen incumbents stepped down after surviving the 1982 election bloodbath caused by the Cutback Amendment that eliminated one-third of the House membership. Thanks to the Democratic map Madigan masterminded, 43 of the 57 eliminated seats were held by Republicans, and most survivors of both parties were anxious to stay.

Even with the bigger 177-member House in the 1970s, only 18 incumbents didn’t run in 1974.

So what’s so different about 2014, causing incumbent House members to buck a trend that goes back at least 40 years and encompasses the state’s modern redistricting history?

“If you’re a Republican, you’re looking at being in the minority for the next decade, and that’s not a lot of fun,” notes Kent Redfield, an emeritus political science professor at the University of Illinois Springfield.

“It’s a real drag being in the minority,” agrees Mooney. “It wears on you.”

Not only are Republicans the minority in the House, with just 47 members to the Democrats’ 71, their numbers haven’t been so low since 1991, when Democrats held a lopsided 72-46 majority. With their three-fifths advantage, Democrats in theory can do whatever they want with no GOP input. In practice, of course, the party’s diversity — embracing Chicago liberals, southern Illinois social conservatives, significant minority numbers and just about everything in between — makes it difficult to get everyone on the same page, particularly on hot-button issues such as gun control and same-sex marriage. If and when it happens, though, Republicans will be powerless to stop it.

Moreover, as an unintended result of the single-member districts created by the 1980 Cutback Amendment, individual candidates have become much more dependent on party leadership to manage and fund their campaigns. In addition, significant changes to the House rules over the past two decades have concentrated more power in the speaker’s hands, further marginalizing the minority. No longer, for example, can individual lawmakers propose amendments to legislation while it’s pending before the full chamber and expect them to be considered; instead, so-called floor amendments go to the House Rules Committee, allowing Madigan to quash any potentially politically embarrassing votes. Ironically, many of the rules that most hamstring individual members were put in place in 1995, when Republicans took control of the House; Madigan simply adopted them when he reclaimed the gavel in 1997.

Partisan considerations aside, the state’s ongoing fiscal problems also make the job of state lawmakers less appealing, according to Redfield.

“Even in the majority, there are a lot of tough votes, decisions you have to make that are going to be hard,” he says. “Representing people and doing things for them is part of the attractiveness of the job. Being in a position where you constantly have to say ‘No’ and cut programs is hard. ... You get frustrated with the process, with the inability to get things done. You can only be optimistic for so long.” 

“If you feel like you’re accomplishing something, you’re effective and doing good, you’re less likely to be looking at other opportunities,” notes Mooney. “But if you’re miserable and things aren’t working out, why not?”

Charles N. Wheeler III is director of the Public Affairs Reporting program at the University of Illinois Springfield. 

Illinois Issues, November 2013