White’s retirement test of ‘non-retrogression’


Once an office goes black, it can never go back. Believe it or not, that’s the law of the land, at least for some offices.

It’s called "non-retrogression." Under the federal Voting Rights Act, once a black or a Hispanic is elected to a legislative office, such as congressman, state legislator, county commissioner or alderman, the boundaries of that majority-minority district cannot be altered.

"Non-retrogression" is also the unofficial policy of the Democratic Party in Cook County and, to a lesser extent, in Illinois. Once a minority person is slated, nominated and elected to a specific office, then that minority thereafter "owns" it. A member of that minority group must forevermore be slated.

Longtime Secretary of State Jesse White’s Aug. 20 announcement that he is retiring in 2018 will test the Democratic leadership’s commitment to non-retrogression and will put the state party chairman, Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan, in a particularly difficult position. White is black, he has held the office since 1998, he is enormously popular with the electorate, and he wants to pass the post on to his protege, black Alderman Walter Burnett (27th).

Madigan’s problems are twofold. First, he wants to ensure that his daughter, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, is slated, nominated without opposition and elected governor over Republican Bruce Rauner in 2018. He needs party harmony, and he cannot risk a statewide Democratic slate lacking minorities; in short, no retrogression. Second, Madigan has his own black candidate for White’s job: Cook County Recorder of Deeds Karen Yarbrough, a former state representative from west suburban Maywood and a Madigan protege.

Then it gets complicated, geographically, racially and with regard to gender. State Treasurer Mike Frerichs of Champaign, who was elected by a narrow margin in 2014, is likely to run for secretary of state in the primary. He spends much time cultivating Downstate voters, and his pitch is that if Chicagoans are slated for governor and attorney general, then a Downstater deserves to be secretary of state. If Frerichs were slated for White’s job, then a black candidate would have to be slated for attorney general and governor.

However, that is not what black politicians in Cook County want. White’s office has 4,593 jobs, most of them below Grade 23 (making less than $50,000). There are a lot of clerks, testers and cashiers to be hired, and the work force in the county is more than half black. The state has civil service, but there are ways a creative committeeman can help somebody get hired or promoted. In addition, there are a goodly number of well paid administrative posts with job security, and every politician has constituents with driver’s license concerns and problems. White’s office offers regular seminars on the rules of the road. State legislators bus in dozens of people, usually seniors, for testing, and happy drivers remember.

Black politicians are not going to trade off a secretary of state for an attorney general.

Also pondering a race is Brandon Phelps, a conservative Democrat from Harrisburg, at the state’s southern tip, and, interestingly, so is state Senator Ira Silverstein (D-8) of West Rogers Park, whose term expires in 2018, meaning he would have to give up his seat to run. Silverstein said that he is not sure that a Jewish candidate can win statewide. He will be closely monitoring the 2106 primary for comptroller between Dan Biss, a Jewish state senator from Evanston, and Susana Mendoza, the Chicago city clerk, who is backed by the Madigan machine and who will have strong Hispanic support.

Biss will raise and spend $2 million and build name identification. A victory by Biss would be a major embarrassment for Madigan and a definite encouragement to Frerichs. If Mendoza wins, it will be because Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, who has emerged as the county’s most powerful black politician, keeps the black committeemen in line and delivers 60 to 70 percent of the black vote to Mendoza.

Should Mendoza be elected, she would be the odds-on choice for slating as lieutenant governor in 2018 on a ticket with Lisa Madigan.

The dynamics of the developing Burnett-Yarbrough rivalry lie in geography. Burnett is from the Near West Side; his ward, where White is the committeeman, is just west of the Loop. There are five West Side wards, straddling the Eisenhower Expressway and casting fewer than 30,000 primary votes. Preckwinkle is the boss of the 14 South Side wards, stretching south from the Loop along the Ryan Expressway and casting more than 80,000 primary votes. The South Siders have long been dominant, producing such leaders as Barack Obama, Harold Washington, John Stroger and Preckwinkle, but White, whose mentor was George Dunne and who spent 16 years in the Illinois House, equalized the equation, giving West Siders sizable clout in state government.

The expansion of Chicago’s black population from the late 1980s onward changed the dynamic. Middle class West Siders migrated into Proviso Township (Maywood, Bellwood, Westchester), while middle class South Siders migrated to the south suburbs, first to Blue Island, Robbins and Harvey and then to South Holland, Markham, Hazel Crest, Flossmoor, Dolton and Calumet City, the latter of which are now 75 to 80 percent black. A few white committeemen remain, but the Democratic vote in Thornton, Bloom and Rich townships is 4-1. The suburban black primary vote is about 45,000.

Surprisingly, there is no sense of suburban solidarity, nor any attempt to hold the balance of power. The south suburbanites stick with the South Side Chicagoans. Proviso Township, where Yarbrough is the committeeman, is sort of like an orphan, albeit one with a powerful stepfather in Mike Madigan. The presumption has been that Yarbrough will be the slated 2018 candidate and that Burnett would be appointed to her job, but it’s more likely that a south suburban black politician would get the recorder’s post, especially if it’s the South Side black vote that nominates her over Frerichs.

In the past century, being the Illinois secretary of state was a viable steppingstone to higher office, governor or senator. Since 1928 three secretaries have become governor (Louis Emmerson, Jim Edgar and George Ryan) and one has become senator (Alan Dixon). By comparison, not a single attorney general has moved up, although five have tried.

The reason is exposure, and none of it is negative. The secretary of state is basically a glorified clerk who pushes paper, collects fees, provides services, makes no policy and doesn’t comment on issues such as pension reform, and thereby makes no enemies. Even when the secretary raises license renewal or plate sticker fees, voters don’t become enraged. Jesse White’s name is emblazoned on envelopes, licenses, certificates, windows, signs and all the other minutiae of state government, and he registers voters. What’s not to like? Attorneys general sue people and make legal policy, and thereby make enemies.

Once elected, secretaries either die in office or run for another office. No incumbent secretary has been defeated since 1916. Emmerson, Ed Hughes and Charles Carpentier were elected three times, Edgar, Ryan, Dixon Eddie Barrett and Paul Powell were elected two times, and White was elected four times.

In fact, White’s election in 1998 was quite providential. Incumbent Ryan was running for governor, and the field looked to be the 1996 Senate loser, Republican Al Salvi, versus Downstate state senator Penny Severns, an outspoken feminist and abortion rights advocate. Whoever won, Salvi or Severns, was viewed as a future governor. At the time, White was the recorder, the blacks having "owned" the office since 1988, when Carol Moseley Braun won the job, but then Severns died of cancer. White’s remaining opponent was Tim McCarthy, the Orland Park police chief. Liberals and minorities coalesced behind White, who beat McCarthy by 100,195 votes (with 55.6 percent of the vote).

Voters correctly perceived that Salvi was vastly over-qualified and that he was running for Ryan’s job because it was a steppingstone to another job, which is exactly what Frerichs is doing. Frerichs wants to be governor. White creamed Salvi by 437,206 votes in the same election in which Ryan won the governorship by 119,903 votes and Peter Fitzgerald beat Moseley Braun for senator by 98,545 votes.

After White won, he simply did his job. No upgrades, no ambitions, no expectations of being governor or senator, and he was re-elected with close to 70 percent of the vote in 2002, 2006, 2010 and 2014. That’s incredible for a once-obscure West Side black politician whose claim to fame was his legendary "Tumblers."

The outlook: Democratic primaries normally draw a turnout of about 950,000 in non-presidential years, of which 600,000 comes from Cook County and another 135,000 from the Collar Counties; Downstate casts the balance of the balance of 215,000. Nearly 200,000 of the Cook County votes come from predominantly black wards and townships. If Yarbrough is the only black candidate against several white candidates, her base, augmented by Madigan’s machine in the predominantly white wards and Downstate, mean an easy victory.

There will be no retrogression in Illinois’ secretary of state’s office. Karen Yarbrough will occupy that job for a very, very long time.

Send e-mail to russ@russstewart. com or visit his Web site at www. russstewart.com.