Billionaire Republicans test Speaker Madigan’s strength in Illinois Supreme Court retention battle

Ray Long, Chicago Tribune
·4 min read

House Speaker Michael Madigan’s political strength is getting a test Tuesday night as he seeks to keep Democratic Justice Tom Kilbride on the Illinois Supreme Court in a record-smashing, big-dollar fight against a pair of billionaires trying to defeat him.

The stakes are unusually high because Republicans view the Kilbride seat as their best chance to eventually knock Democrats out of a 4-3 majority on the state’s high court.

Kilbride, 67, of Rock Island needs 60% of voters to approve his retention and give him a rare third, 10-year term. Justices running for retention do not face an opponent.

He’s up in a judicial district that includes 21 counties in north-central Illinois. The biggest vote tallies are expected to come from Kilbride’s home county of Rock Island, along with Kankakee, LaSalle, Peoria, Tazewell and Will counties.

With former Vice President Joe Biden and U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris topping their ticket, Illinois Democrats hoped to catch a wave of enthusiasm for change in Washington that could bring out voters who would support Kilbride.

But Republicans also came into the night believing they have a realistic shot at defeating Kilbride — residents within the 3rd Judicial District’s footprint voted for Donald Trump in 2016 for president and for then-Gov. Bruce Rauner in 2018. Kilbride is viewed as vulnerable because he received just under 66% when he first ran for retention in 2010.

All told, the pro- and anti-Kilbride sides have put in $11.7 million. That’s a new contributions record for a state Supreme Court election in Illinois, breaking the previous high-water mark of $9.38 million achieved in 2004.

The biggest anti-Kilbride contributions came from two billionaire donors, hedge fund entrepreneur Ken Griffin, who gave $4.5 million, and packing mogul Richard Uihlein, who gave $500,000. State and national dark money groups with Republican, conservative and corporate ties gave hundreds of thousands more.

Griffin and Uihlien also opposed Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s proposed tax amendment that would replace the current flat-rate income tax with a graduated rate for the wealthiest Illinoisans. Anti-Kilbride forces hope their effort to oust the justice will be buoyed by a strong turnout by voters opposed to Pritzker’s tax amendment.

To bolster Kilbride’s retention bid, Madigan contributed $550,000 from the Democratic Party of Illinois that he chairs. The Democratic Party alone has contributed more than $2.7 million to Kilbride’s three contests dating to his first in 2000. Big labor, teachers unions and the trial lawyer community delivered multiple six-figure donations to support Kilbride in the current contest.

What’s different in 2020 is that Madigan has been implicated in an ongoing federal Commonwealth Edison bribery case. The power company has admitted to giving lobbyist and contract jobs to Madigan allies in hopes that he would look favorably on key legislation. Madigan has denied wrongdoing, but Republicans sought to hurt Kilbride by emphasizing his financial help from the embattled speaker, filling mailboxes with attack pieces.

The 3rd Judicial District is the site of one of Madigan’s most farsighted political wins.

The speaker orchestrated a late surge that helped Kilbride win his first race in 2000, a victory that flipped the seat from Republican to Democrat. The Kilbride victory proved invaluable to Democrats, saving their court majority when Republicans picked up the court’s southern Illinois seat a few years later. Democrats have controlled the state Supreme Court for more than half a century.

If Kilbride loses, the court could seek an interim appointment until a replacement is elected in 2022. It’s unclear to court watchers whether Kilbride would have a voice on his replacement. His term would end in December.

One scenario Republicans envisioned is that the six remaining justices — three from each party — deadlock on a temporary Kilbride replacement. That would keep the court evenly balanced until the next election in 2022, a race in a nonpresidential year that Republicans hope to win.

Another Supreme Court contest on the ballot was in far southern Illinois, where Democratic Appellate Justice Judy Cates of Swansea battled Republican Appellate Justice David Overstreet of Mount Vernon in the 5th District.

In Cook County, appointed Democratic Justice P. Scott Neville Jr. ran unopposed for a full term to replace the late Justice Charles Freeman from the 1st District.

rlong@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @RayLong

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