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Tom Kacich: Rejection hints at road map to future success

Champaign News Gazette

Wednesday, July 2, 2014  |  Column  |  Tom Kacich

Candidates--Legislative (11) , Candidates--Statewide (12) , Election Issues (not candidates) (39) , Redistricting (78) Harms, Josh--State House, 106 , Madigan, Michael--State House, 22

There's no crying in government reform.

Rather than whine about Chicago judges, Michael Madigan's political clout and unlevel playing fields, Trent Shepard, Diane Wilhite, Sherry Steigmann, Greg Knott and others are ready to go back to work to pass a constitutional amendment to change the way Illinois' legislative districts are drawn.

The most recent attempt, pushed by the statewide "Yes for Independent Maps" organization, ended Friday when the Chicago-based group suddenly pulled the plug on its yearlong campaign to get an amendment on the November ballot.

That came after Cook County Judge Mary Mikva, in a neat, 11-page opinion, declared both the redistricting amendment and a term-limits proposal invalid. She was not the first to opine that both efforts were legally flawed, but she was the first to do so with judicial authority.

Fortunately, she left a hint of a constitutional road map for the backers of a redistricting effort, including places to avoid, that could bring them success in a future endeavor. "(A) differently drafted redistricting initiative could be valid, but, for the reasons stated, the proposed Redistricting Initiative is not," Mikva wrote.

There's a reason the Illinois Constitution is restrictive when it comes to allowing for citizen initiatives to amend the Constitution, she noted.

And it could be worse; under the previous constitution there was no provision for ballot initiative.

But as the constitutional convention delegates — who were elected by the people — debated allowing for a more liberal initiative process, their committee on suffrage and constitutional amendments decided that it could be abused by special-interest groups.

That, they reasoned, could result in "ill-conceived attempts to write what should have been the subject of ordinary legislation into the Constitution."

The committee also noted that voters would routinely — every 20 years — have the opportunity to amend the entire Constitution by way of a new convention. Most recently, voters had that chance in 2008 and rejected it by a 2-to-1 margin.

Finally, remember that the 1970 Constitution wasn't approved by a gang of political hacks in a back room of the Capitol; it was ratified by the voters.

In other words, the voters approved the rules we play by today, and have declined opportunities to change them.

So even though the local people who worked so hard on the "Yes" campaign aren't happy that it proved to be such a flop — "It shocked me that it would end with a whimper like that," said Urbana resident Shepard — they're not about to surrender.

"When the candidates get to pick their own voters, you see the outcome," said Knott, a Parkland College trustee and former Champaign County Board member. "It doesn't matter if it's Republican or Democrat, this is about self-motivation and self-preservation. That's the element that has to be taken out."

The local volunteers are all-in again, ready to pass petitions door-to-door and at football games and gun shows, have the signatures checked and notarized, speak to service groups, and help train workers in other towns.

"I want to do it again and I think that all the people I know who collected signatures would do it again," said Steigmann, who lives in Urbana.

"I'm not going to let the political insiders not let us win this," said Wilhite, of Champaign. "It's just wrong."

"Before I talked to Diane about this, I was thinking that I didn't know if I had it in me to do it again and have it fail again," Shepard said. "But one of the last things she said to me was that one of these days we're going to have an Illinois spring, kind of like the Arab spring. When she said that, it was kind of like that, 'I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore' feeling coming back up again."

"It seems like it almost has to be an effort in perfection to get this over the judicial hump," Knott said. "But you've got to keep trying. You can't give up. You see what the status quo is. Can it get any worse?"

There's a certain amount of second-guessing going on among the volunteers; the sudden departure of "Yes" campaign manager Michael Kolenc — who announced the move by tweeting "On Wednesday of this week @IndependentMaps campaign and I separated. Thx to amazing staff and vols for your dedication" — didn't help. They're wondering about the thoroughness of the legal review of the proposed amendment, why the Illinois Farm Bureau insisted the proposed amendment was flawed, whether the campaign started too late, why more volunteer petition-passers couldn't be found, even whether the whole $3 million-plus effort was deliberately doomed to fail.

Now the volunteers say they can learn from their mistakes.

"This wasn't going to go into effect until 2020 anyway, so we have the time," Wilhite said. "We'll be so much smarter about it this time."

Harms retirement

The jockeying already has begun to replace state Rep. Josh Harms, R-Watseka, in the Illinois House.

There are at least five people looking at the seat, including former state Sen. Shane Cultra, R-Onarga; Parkland College trustee and Ford County Republican Party chairman Tom Bennett; and Susan Wynn Bence, an Iroquois County Board member who also is an aide to Harms. Candidates from Woodford and Livingston counties also are in the mix.

Cultra, the GOP chairman in Iroquois County who served a combined 10 years in the House and the Illinois Senate, said, "I'm looking at it, I'm not going to deny that."

He said the Republican chairmen from the five counties in the district — Vermilion, Ford, Iroquois, Livingston and Woodford — would meet this weekend to begin discussing slating a replacement on the ballot for Harms.

"We're having a meeting this weekend, and after that meeting I'm going to make a decision," Cultra said of his interest in the seat. "I can't say right now but I'm going to investigate. It depends on how that meeting goes whether I'm going to be involved or not."

According to the State Board of Elections, the five Republican county chairmen in the district have until Aug. 21 to slate a candidate to take Harms' place on the Nov. 4 election ballot, although Cultra said there is some confusion about that date.

"We might only have eight days from the time Josh notifies the board that he isn't running," Cultra said.

Harms said he regrets the late decision to drop out of the race.

"It wasn't my intention to get onto the ballot and then get removed, because I believe the people need to pick the person, instead of having someone slated. But I need to take care of my family," said Harms.

He said a quick return to the Legislature "is definitely out of the question right now. I don't know what's going to happen 10 years down the road."

Harms said he isn't leaving the General Assembly because he feels frustrated as a member of the Republican minority in the Illinois House.

"It has nothing to do with the Legislature. I have something at home that I need to take care of," he said.

He has accepted a teaching position with the Iroquois County Special Education Coop, a position he had before he was in the House.

"It was a wonderful experience," he said of his nearly two years in the Legislature. "It was a once-in-a-lifetime honors. I just can't balance home and the Legislature, and family comes first."

The Democratic candidate in the overwhelmingly Republican District is William Nutter, also of Watseka. Nutter is a four-term city council member in Watseka.