The Democrats' new super-majorities promise to enhance the power of individual caucuses.
In the frenzied final hours of the 2005 spring session of the Illinois General Assembly, the push to finalize a new state budget suddenly ground to a halt when a bloc of Democratic lawmakers announced they couldn't support the spending plan.
Without their votes, there was no way the Democratic majority could adopt a budget without Republican input, raising speculation that the session could go into overtime.
Facing the prospect of being stuck in Springfield during the summer months, House Speaker Michael Madigan called the members of the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus into his private office near the House floor to try to find a way to meet their needs and keep the budget-making process on track. Hours later, members of the caucus announced they were back on board. No terms of the negotiations were ever outlined, but Republicans pointed to the insertion into the budget of hundreds of millions of dollars for local projects as an example of how the deal likely was sealed.
“I feel very comfortable with the commitments he (Madigan) made today, and going forward, we decided that we would be a ‘yes,’” said former state Rep. Marlow Colvin, a Chicago Democrat who was chairman of the caucus at the time.
The incident is just one example of the role that caucuses can play in the legislative process. And, with Democrats now holding super-majorities in the Senate and the House, the informal coalitions could become an even bigger factor in what gets done and what doesn’t on the floor of the House and Senate.
In theory, the majorities held by Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton could allow them to ignore the threat of a veto from the governor.
Cullerton, however, believes the possibility of that happening is “exaggerated’’ because of the diverse nature of the Democratic caucus. In other words, just because they are Democrats doesn’t mean they see eye to eye on every issue.
“We have numerous caucuses. We have to compromise within our caucuses,” Cullerton says.
Take gun control as an issue: Many white downstate Democrats favor allowing citizens to carry concealed weapons, while many black Chicago lawmakers oppose that concept.
“Democrats are not a homogeneous lot,” says Deputy House Majority Leader Lou Lang, a Democrat from Skokie.
By definition, a caucus is an informal meeting of a group of legislators, most often called on the basis of party affiliation or regional representation. In addition to the standard Republican and Democratic caucuses, there are at least 10 more potential voting blocs operating under the Capitol dome, including gatherings for Latinos, downstate interests and female legislators.
The Conference of Women Legislators, known in Springfield parlance as COWL, is highly visible because of a fundraiser its members organize to help pay for scholarships and leadership training. The ‘Capitol Capers’ event, held every two years, allows rank-and-file members to lampoon themselves and their leaders for a good cause.
The organization was formed in 1979 to advance the interests of women, but because of its bipartisan nature, it often focuses on pushing agreed-upon legislation forward rather than on blocking maneuvers employed by other caucuses. In February 2012, for example, COWL members teamed with the Illinois Department of Public Health to increase awareness of heart disease by co-sponsoring a fitness program.
COWL Executive Director Deborah Murphy says the group has pushed for legislation for equal pay laws, backed increases in mental health funding and focused on legislation to prevent sexual abuse.
“We try to choose things that will help improve the economic well-being of women, family and children,” Murphy says.
Similarly, one of the newest caucuses in Springfield is dedicated to bringing attention to a national health epidemic. Formed in 2011, the Illinois Legislative Diabetes Caucus is designed to support public policies and programs to improve the lives of those affected by diabetes and to create awareness for its prevention. In November, members of the caucus fanned out to hospitals, school districts and other public places in their districts to help raise the public’s understanding of the disease.
There also is an Asian-American caucus, even though there are no Asian-Americans currently serving in the House and Senate. It is overseen by lawmakers who represent the districts with the largest number of Asian-Americans in Illinois.
Lang, who chairs the new group, says he realized the need for the caucus because about one-third of the constituents in his district are Asian-Americans, including Indians, Pakistanis, Chinese and Japanese.
He sought out other representatives in the Senate and the House and then met with the constituents to find out whether they would support formation of a new caucus to help focus in on specialized social service programs and immigration issues.
“They should have a voice in Springfield,” Lang says. “We’re going to be their sounding board.”
A similar story follows the creation of the Latino Caucus, which is known for its members standing together on issues such as immigration reform and social service programs. In addition to focusing on legislative issues, the group also formed a foundation in 2002 to hand out college scholarships aimed at “training the state’s next generation of leaders.”
While black and Latino caucuses are predominantly Democratic, the legislature’s Downstate Caucus has members from both sides of the aisle, but its goals are not that dissimilar from its ethnic counterparts. Along with pushing policies that could bring economic development to their home communities, members focus on finding common ground on issues affecting agriculture, education, health care and conservation.
One of the key Downstate Caucus issues is obtaining money for downstate transportation projects in the face of the massive need for road-building dollars in traffic-choked Chicago and its suburbs.
“Our roads are the vital connection that links businesses and people throughout the state. They are the engine that drives our economy and provides us access to agricultural markets, higher education and health care, just to name a few,” notes the caucus’ website.
The Illinois Legislative Sportsmen’s Caucus also has a downstate focus but includes many members from every corner of the state interested in outdoors issues. In recent years, the group has led the way on initiatives affecting state parks, conservation laws and hunting regulations.
Former state Rep. Dan Reitz, a Steeleville Democrat who once chaired the caucus, says it is tough to gain consensus among the different lawmakers because members come from diverse backgrounds. While most share a desire to improve outdoor opportunities in Illinois, there were some disagreements over finer points, such as the ability to carry concealed weapons or the role of open space in cities versus more rural downstate areas.
“It was a little harder to keep everyone focused. You had members from deep southern Illinois and members from Chicago,” says Reitz, now a lobbyist for Chapman and Cutler.
He says caucuses can get behind legislation, which then helps persuade non-members to support it.
“When they are able to work together, it helps the process along,” Reitz says.
State Rep. Bob Pritchard, a Hinckley Republican, says he has been a member of at least nine or 10 caucuses during his decade in Springfield. Some groups are active, while others come and go according to the issues that are playing beneath the dome.
He says caucuses will be important in the coming two-year General Assembly because there are many new members who could use the work of a caucus to educate themselves about various issues.
“Because caucuses are often bipartisan and bicameral, they help bring an attitude of information-sharing to the group, rather than just partisan politics,” Pritchard says.
He was a member of a caucus brought together by manufacturing interests that helped craft — and kill — legislation focusing on worker compensation issues. He says caucuses likely will be more important to Republicans in the coming spring session because of their minority status. Getting involved in a group at that level could help a GOP lawmaker have a bigger voice in the legislative process than he or she would otherwise have when issues arrive on the floor of the House or Senate for a vote.
“It’s a way to bring members from both parties together,” Pritchard says.
Over the years, however, the black caucus has remained one of the most visible and effective caucuses in the Statehouse. The coalition consists of more than two dozen legislators in the House and Senate who are committed to ensuring that people of color are represented in the legislative process.
The bloc traces its roots to the mid-1960s, when the number of blacks being elected to the General Assembly was on the rise. Former Chicago Mayor Harold Washington was among a handful of African-American lawmakers who formed a study group to discuss political issues and strategies of interest to the black community.
By 1969, the group had evolved into a full-fledged caucus, pushing for civil rights issues, educational reforms and budget plans that would help minority communities. The passage of laws such as Illinois’ motor voter program, which enables people to register to vote at driver’s license stations, can be tied to the efforts of the black caucus.
State Rep. Will Davis, a Democrat from Hazel Crest, serves as chairman of the black caucus in the House.
“Our role primarily is to examine the effect of legislation and proposals on African-Americans.”
In the recent debate over how to reduce the state’s Medicaid costs, Davis says the black caucus fought back attempts to reduce funding for podiatry services. He says the prevalence of diabetes within the African-American community makes having state-funded podiatric services a major issue.
“We want to focus our efforts on preventative care rather than afterward, when you’re talking about amputations and people having to be in wheelchairs. That would be more expensive than providing treatment upfront,” Davis says.
With 20 members in the House from nearly every corner of the state, the black caucus could play a big role in deciding what legislation moves forward and what stays on the sidelines during the coming months, Davis says.
“I think we’re one of the most important caucuses in the General Assembly.”
Kurt Erickson is the Statehouse bureau chief for Lee Enterprises newspapers.
Illinois Issues, January 2013