Cook County's Durkin Elected House GOP Leader

Aug 30, 2013

Rep. Jim Durkin (R-Western Springs) bested Rep. Raymond Poe (R-Springfield) as Illinois House Republicans’ new leader. Despite a “scuffle” over the leadership post in past days, Durkin and Poe presented a united front after the closed-door caucus meeting at the Statehouse Inn in Springfield Thursday.
Credit Amanda Vinicky/WUIS

  In a rare turn of events, Illinois' General Assembly will have a leadership change mid-way through the two-year legislative session. It's set in motion by House Republican Leader Tom Cross's decision to step down, he's expected to soon announce a run for state treasurer. Republican members of the House met Thursday in Springfield to choose his replacement. Longtime Rep. Jim Durkin (R-Western Springs) claimed the title.

It wasn't supposed to happen so fast.

Rep. Cross announced just last Wednesday that he was going to resign as the minority leader. In the short time in between things got, well, nasty.

Durkin's supporters rushed to call the House Republicans to the capital city so they could make him leader, a move the other top contender for the post, Rep. Raymond Poe of Springfield, called "underhanded."

The meeting happened anyway, and when Durkin walked out of it the victor --- beaming --- Poe was by his side.

Poe joked that he’s Durkin’s bodyguard; but he had, in a sense, protected him.

When it became clear Poe didn't have the votes to clinch a win, he not only took his name out of the running, he was the one to nominate Durkin, for a vote by acclimation.

"I think the whole message of the day is: we're coming out of that room as we're 47 strong,” Poe says. “And Jim's our new leader and we're going to elect more representatives and we're going to elect a Republican governor. And guess what? The things that are important to Republicans, we're going to be able to carry those out under Jim's leadership."

Durkin -- still unable to stop smiling -- and was equally complimentary of Poe:

“Without getting into specifics, Raymond, uh, his point was that we're a unified party today,” Leader-Elect Durkin says. “We are more unified today than we have been in a long time. And I can thank Raymond for that. We have a lot of ... we have a very diverse caucus, but we're going to use that diversity to our advantage ."

Durkin wouldn't say what had transpired behind the scenes to let them put such a happy face on the day's events. All of that had been worked out before the actual meeting. Presumably, it involved a lot of trading, and promises from Durkin about who he'll assign to leadership positions.

The vote itself happened behind the closed doors of a conference room at the Statehouse Inn, a hotel just down the street from the Capitol.

In order to avoid any potential breach of ethics regulations that forbid political activity in government buildings, the meeting wasn't held at the Statehouse itself. Reporters waited outside, and only heard intermittent clapping. It was over and done in less than an hour. As he exited the meeting, outgoing leader Cross was deferential to his successor saying, "We're a united, strong caucus. It's his day, it's his day."

Cross will finish out his term a as a rank-and-file representative. He technically remains the House Republican Leader. There's no set deadline for when he'll step down, though the transition is expected to take a few weeks. Even then, the full House will have to take a formal vote when it next convenes in order to make it official. As that happens, Durkin will take on the perks of leadership: higher pay, extra staff, a bigger office:

"My daughter's very excited,” he says. “Cause she's been in Tom Cross's office once and she says, 'Is that the big office?' "

But, as the saying goes, with privilege comes responsibility. Illinois's budget problems lumber on, dragged down by a $100 billion pension debt; and Republicans don't have all that much of a say as to what the General Assembly does about it. Democrats hold super-majorities in both the House and Senate. The caucus Durkin is taking over has 47 members to Democrats' 71.

In his campaign for leader, Durkin and his supporters took swipes at Cross for that. They said it was important to get a new leader in place sooner than later given that the House Republican fundraising arm is in "dire financial straits."

"There will be some adjustments made,” he says. “I can't say what those will be. But the fact is, again, we're talking about an election cycle where you have a very heated governor's race, there's going to be a lot of money that's going to be placed in the governor's race, so we have to make best use of every dollar that we have in our campaign operations.”

Durkin says he has the background to do it: he's a former prosecutor. He's been a member of the Illinois House since 1995, with the exception of a few years after his failed 2002 campaign for U.S. Senate.

But there may be no preparation for leading a group of politicians who are concerned first and foremost with their own re-election.

What looks good to a GOP voter downstate is a lot different than what pleases a GOP voter from the suburbs, say on an issue like same-sex marriage. So while Republicans are waxing poetic about unity and embracing diversity now, the battle between Durkin and Poe exposes past - and potential future - rifts.