Primary sets the stage for showdown in Illinois legislature as Democratic incumbents tied to Michael Madigan struggle

Primary sets the stage for showdown in Illinois legislature as Democratic incumbents tied to Michael Madigan struggle
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With the longest-serving state House speaker in American history not on the ballot for the first time in over half a century, new Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch sought to set the stage for a November ballot that will keep the Democrats’ sizable House majority bequeathed to him by his now-indicted predecessor.

The primary unfolded with at least one incumbent House Democrat loyal to Madigan conceding he lost and another who served in Madigan’s leadership team trailing late in a tight race, based on unofficial results. And one House Democrat with a convincing lead declared victory despite being under federal investigation.

Democrats in the House and Senate, which is led by President Don Harmon of Oak Park, are in the driver’s seat for the November general election. They used their hefty majorities in both chambers to draw favorable new legislative district boundaries following the once-a-decade national census, and Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker quickly agreed to sign the map specifically designed to keep their party in control.

“In November, voters have a very clear choice,” Welch said in a statement, adding: “It is more important than ever that we stand for and with the people of Illinois to keep the House blue in 2022. We have to protect reproductive rights, we have to protect rights to privacy, improve our economy and keep our communities safe. That will all be on the ballot in November.”

“Democrats,” Harmon added, “are ready to make the case to Illinois voters about who will best lead our state into the future, especially after the Republicans nominated an anti-choice extremist like Darren Bailey in the same week the Supreme Court of the United States overturned fifty years of precedent and denied women the right to choose.”

Welch, a Hillside Democrat, took over as speaker in January 2021 when then-House Speaker Michael Madigan, who holds the nationwide record for 36 years as speaker, failed to extend his reign once a bloc of 19 mostly female House Democrats refused to back him as he was dogged by a growing federal ComEd scandal. Already energized by a #MeToo movement that led to Madigan cutting misbehaving aides, many lawmakers saw the growing bribes-for-favors ComEd probe as a last-straw moment when federal prosecutors in mid-2020 named Madigan “Public Official A.”

Madigan, who resigned from the House after losing the speakership, was indicted on corruption charges in March. He has pleaded not guilty.

Going into Tuesday, Republicans sought to meld together a lineup of candidates that could pick up seats in November’s general election and build momentum on voter outrage fueled by higher gas prices, rising inflation, Democratic President Joe Biden’s lukewarm favorability ratings and the fallout from Madigan’s legal woes. The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to throw out Roe v. Wade, though, is likely to cause both parties to recalculate their politics.

Democrats currently hold a 73-45 majority in the House, a margin that Madigan, a master of the closed-door remapping process, had helped build while still in power. Harmon’s Democratic troops hold an overwhelming 41-18 majority.

At the very least, Republicans, particularly House GOP Leader Jim Durkin of Western Springs, hope to pick up enough votes to take away what’s known as the Democratic supermajorities. Democrats currently hold more than enough lawmakers in both chambers to control a supermajority, three-fifths vote that could, if they stick together, override a governor’s veto or approve major debt with support from their party alone.

To break the supermajorities, Republicans would need to win at least three seats in the House in November, a potentially doable gain, and Senate Republicans led by Minority Leader Dan McConchie of Hawthorn Woods would need to pick up six seats, a much steeper climb. But he predicted a “red wave is coming.”

The marquee intramural scuffle among House Democrats saw Rep. Mike Zalewski of Riverside acknowledge in an Instagram post that he conceded in a call to challenger Abdelnasser Rashid of Justice, a technology consultant for the Amalgamated Transit Union. Rashid, who attacked the incumbent over his strong legislative alliance with Madigan, declared victory.

Zalewski’s father, retired Ald. Mike Zalewski of the 23rd Ward, is a key figure in the federal case against Madigan, who allegedly secured various contracts with ComEd for the former alderman and other political pals. The elder Zalewski allegedly received a $5,000-a-month contract that required little or no work. Rep. Zalewski, who has not been charged in the federal case, is married to Carrie Zalewski, the Illinois Commerce Commission chair.

Rep. Kathy Willis, the Addison Democrat that Madigan recruited years ago to take the seat away from Republicans, found herself trailing challenger Norma Hernandez, a Triton College trustee from Melrose Park. Hernandez’s camp claimed victory Tuesday night.

Madigan made Willis part of his leadership team, appointing her as his caucus chair, but she was one of the 19 holdouts who refused to support his reelection as speaker in 2021. Willis could not be reached for comment late Tuesday.

In the South suburbs, Democratic Rep. Thaddeus Jones, the mayor of Calumet City, declared victory through a spokesman. Jones is under federal investigation over alleged tax issues tied to campaign funds. Ald. Monet Wilson of Calumet City conceded, saying, “The people have chosen to re-elect a career politician who is under criminal federal investigation.”

In the Democratic primary to replace retiring House Majority Leader Greg Harris, a North Side race saw Hoan Huynh leading in a five-way contest in which the second-leading vote-getter, Eileen Dordek, conceded defeat through a spokesperson. Pritzker had campaigned on Dordek’s behalf.

Holding a solid lead late Tuesday, incumbent Democratic Rep. Sonya Harper of Chicago said: “It looks like voters still want me to represent them in Springfield, and I’m very happy for that.”

Appointed Democratic incumbent Rep. Michael Kelly, who replaced longtime Rep. John D’Amico of Chicago, declared victory, according to his campaign manager, over fellow Chicagoan Michael Patrick Rabbitt, who acknowledged he lost.

In the Senate, Northwest Side incumbent Democrat Robert Martwick declared victory over challenger Erin Jones, a Chicago firefighter, who could not be reached for comment.

RLong@chicagotribune.com

DRockett@chicagotribune.com

ADPerez@chicagotribune.com