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Miller: Durkin impresses in taking over as House GOP leader

Updated: October 12, 2013 6:25AM



After the House Republicans met late last month in Springfield to elect a new caucus leader, several members gathered at a local watering hole to toast their new top dog, state Rep. Jim Durkin (R-Western Springs).

Notably, several House members who backed Rep. Raymond Poe’s (R-Springfield) candidacy showed up as well and heartily shared in the festivities.

And so a leadership battle that for a while looked to be heading down a bitterly negative path ended with smiles all around. Durkin managed to pull off the impossible.

After the failed 1991 ouster attempt of House GOP Leader Lee Daniels, 11 of the 13 coup plotters fled the House within two years, either for the Senate or other jobs. They had no choice. Retribution was in the air.

When Daniels announced 10 years later that he would be stepping aside, a months-long feud erupted between Reps. Tom Cross and Art Tenhouse, with downstater Tenhouse losing out. The fight got personal and emotional, and lots of members were put in highly uncomfortable positions.

The memories of those fights are strong with those who were around then, and veterans on both sides tried to help steer the current competition away from the abyss ever since Cross, of Oswego, announced that he would resign as Republican leader to run for state treasurer.

Durkin had a reputation among some fellow House Republicans as being aloof and even kind of a jerk — his former Cook County prosecutor tendencies have never completely left him.

But Durkin patiently traveled the state, meeting with anybody who would sit down with him, and eventually managed to assuage those fears. As a result, he walked into the caucus meeting with far more than the 24 votes he needed to win.

Poe gave what many members said was the speech of his life during the meeting, passionately arguing for peace and unity while putting Durkin’s name into nomination. Durkin was elected by acclamation.

Durkin was a member of Cross’ leadership team, but he’s much better known as being policy-oriented. He’s also politically ambitious. He lost a U.S. Senate race in 2002 to Dick Durbin and chaired both of John McCain’s Illinois presidential campaigns.

Durkin was gearing up for a run for attorney general when Cross blindsided him with his own desire for the office. Durkin quickly switched gears and focused on the House leadership job, which helped box Cross out and forced him to find another job after Attorney General Lisa Madigan decided to run for re-election rather than for governor.

Durkin and his team have promised there will be no retribution. There’s a desperate need for unity in that caucus and pretty much everybody gets it. They’re in a terrible spot and have few avenues back to semi-relevance. The House Republicans need to raise a ton of money, find several good candidates and get their collective act together.

Last year’s elections resulted in a Democratic landslide and a super-majority in both legislative chambers. Durkin has to somehow find a way to knock House Speaker Mike Madigan (D-Chicago) and his Democrats back a bit.

Suburban Cook County turns out to be one of the biggest winners with Durkin’s victory. He represents half of Senate Republican Leader Christine Radogno’s district, the second time in recent memory that both GOP legislative leaders hail from the same district (Daniels and Senate President Pate Philip were the last to do that).

Despite losing lots of seats to the Democrats in recent elections, Cook County Republicans now have more legislative power than they’ve probably ever had. Radogno heaped praise on Durkin after his election in a way she never did with Cross.

An improved relationship with the Senate GOP is only the beginning, however. Minority leaders need a backstop to help them deal with often-vengeful partisan majorities.

One of Durkin’s first calls after his election was to Senate President John Cullerton (D-Chicago). He said they had a friendly conversation. Dealing with Madigan will be a lot easier for Durkin if he has Cullerton’s occasionally sympathetic ear.

If he can suppress that prosecutorial attitude, work harder than ever and stay focused and calm while Madigan rattles his cage, Durkin has what it takes to be an effective leader. Time will tell, but so far this looks like a good move by the House GOP.

Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and CapitolFax.com.



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