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Former Rep. Demmer looks back on legislative career leading House GOP budget talks, run for treasurer   

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Monday, January 23, 2023  |  Article  |  Ben Szalinski

Former Rep. Tom Demmer (R-Dixon) is not yet 40 years old but closed the book this month on a 10-year career in the Illinois House that concluded with an unsuccessful run for treasurer. 

 

After a long legislative career that put him at the front of key Republican negotiations on budgets, Demmer said he’s ready for his post-General Assembly life even after a tough election loss.

 

“After the 2020 election, I had just been elected to my fifth term in the House,” Demmer told The Daily Line. “I had really started to think about where I wanted to be in the future, what I wanted to try to work on, what I wanted to try to contribute in the elected political arena. And I really made an initial decision to say that I wasn’t going to run for the House again.”  

 

Demmer has known for the last two years he wasn’t going to return to the General Assembly in 2023. He ultimately decided to run for a higher office and ran for treasurer last year, losing to incumbent Treasurer Mike Frerichs by 11 percentage points in November.  

 

Reflecting back on the race, Demmer said he was realistic about his chances being in a blue state and at a severe financial disadvantage.  

 

“It makes it really difficult… when you’re running in a state with that many voters, you just can’t have personal contact with enough folks to really make a difference in the race,” Demmer said. “You really have to rely on some of those mass broadcast-type of messages.” 

 

Demmer’s financial difficulties on the campaign trail mirror those of most other Republicans who ran for office in 2022. Democrats with the help of Gov. JB Pritzker spent large amounts of money in races that allowed them to saturate TV stations with ads. Demmer originally ran on a slate funded by former Chicago billionaire Ken Griffin but received little help from him during an uncontested primary before Griffin moved to Miami.  

 

“We made the case to a lot of different donors, a lot of people who have historically been involved in the Republican Party, who have the networks of people to bring together significant financial resources,” Demmer said. “We made the case hard, we gave a good pitch I thought for why the office of state treasurer matters, why there was a competitive match up… ultimately the fundraising didn’t work out.” 

 

Other Republicans had more success. Lake Forest billionaire Dick Uihlein gave over $13 million to Dan Proft to fund ads attacking Democrats on crime, several million to Darren Bailey’s losing bid for governor, and some to Sen. Dan McConchie (R-Hawthorn Woods) to be distributed to candidates for state senate. But Demmer said the party focused too much on propping up Bailey’s name on the top of the ticket, which Demmer’s political ally former House Minority Leader Jim Durkin (R-Western Springs) warned repeatedly throughout the year would fail.  

 

“I think that we need to have a stronger party apparatus across the board… I don’t think it’s a successful strategy to sort of go all-in on governor because it’s the most high-profile race and hope that there’s enough ripple effect… I just don’t think that that kind of thing is going to happen in a state where we’re sort of starting from a little bit of a structural disadvantage to begin with,” Demmer said.  

 

Demmer didn’t rule out a political run at some point in his future, but said politics isn’t his focus at the moment.  

 

During his legislative career, Demmer was the most visible voice of the House Republican budget negotiations with his departure representing another changing leadership role for the already depleted House Republican bench.  

 

“I don’t think anybody has a clear picture of exactly what we have to do now, but I do know that the new caucus has elected a new leader, they’ll be a number of new people in leadership, and there’s also a tremendous number of members who have been here either in their first term or second term—there’s not a lot of institutional experience here. I think that gives them an interesting opportunity to rethink and rebuild what the caucus looks like,” Demmer said. 

 

Working on budgets for his caucus has been on the highlights of Demmer’s legislative career. He began working on budgets in 2015 after spending time on health care policy, which he said felt like a natural transition into state budgeting because health care costs make up such a large portion of Illinois’ budget. 

 

“Working on the state budget gave you a chance to work on really every aspect of government, understand how all the pieces in the big picture fit together, and then try to be realistic and frank about what you have the capacity and capability to do,” Demmer said.  

 

Demmer’s first years on the budget team under Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner ended with the state going over two years without a budget. Republicans did not have majorities in the General Assembly and the impasse eventually ended when some Republicans joined Democrats to override Rauner’s veto and pass an income tax increase.  

 

Republicans continue to feel political pressure from Democrats even going on five years since the budget impasse ended in 2017, especially as Democrats take victory laps on Pritzker’s latest budgets which have produced surpluses. Republicans, on the other hand, have complained they’re largely left out of the budget negotiation table, but Demmer said his parting warning to Democrats is to note that larger structural issues in Illinois’ finances still persist.  

 

“Compare a budget in Gov. Pritzker’s first year to a budget this year, our spending has increased really dramatically… we have to be really cautious — the growth in spending is outpacing the growth in normal revenue. We can demonstrate that year to year. That I think is a troubling trend to be on,” Demmer said. 

 

Former House Majority Leader Greg Harris’ (D-Chicago) departure from the General Assembly has left a void to be filled in both caucuses’ budget leaders. House Democrats will fill Harris’ spot with Rep. Jehan Gordon Booth (D-Peoria) leading budget negotiations, though it’s not yet clear who will fill Demmer’s job. Demmer said he doesn’t have an opinion on who fills his spot, but he wants to encourage the next Republican budget leader to continue trying to be involved in the process with Democrats as much as possible.  

 

“Get engaged in the process to the fullest extent that you possibly can,” Demmer said. “Even in years where we have not been in agreement with the Democrats on the approach they took or the product that they produced, being engaged in the budget process and trying to develop our own thoughts and perspective on what our priorities were for the state budget and some of the suggestions we had about ways to improve state finances is a really important and necessary part of doing this job.”