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Statehouse Democratic 
through and through

(H. Rick Bamman – hbamman@shawmedia.com)
Newly elected state Rep. Barbara Wheeler (front), R-Crystal Lake, and friend Angela Wachowiak collect a campaign sign Wednesday. Wheeler will join the newest class of representatives and senators this January, but she’ll be in the minority when it comes to party. Democrats made huge gains in the Statehouse, obtaining a veto-proof majority in both houses.

CRYSTAL LAKE – Barbara Wheeler spent Wednesday morning – the day after she won her bid for the Statehouse – picking up her campaign signs.

Her mood, though, wasn’t jubilant.

While Wheeler, R-Crystal Lake, easily won her seat – she was unopposed in the 64th District – other Republicans weren’t so lucky.

Democrats gained veto-proof majorities in both houses, knocking out four Republican incumbents in the House and one in the Senate.

The huge – and in some cases unprecedented – gains made by Democrats caught area lawmakers of both parties by surprise.

“It is disheartening,” Wheeler said. “I’m very excited, but I’m also kind of scared. ... The Republicans, we have to put out a plan. We’re still going to have to keep pushing forward with some good ideas. We can’t just be the party of no.”

Area Republicans pointed to redistricting – the once-a-decade process of redrawing the state’s political boundaries – which was controlled by Democrats and clearly, they say, heavily favored Democrats.

But while redistricting may have played a part in Democrats’ gains, state Rep. Jack Franks, D-Marengo, said he sees DuPage County as an indicator that something else is going on: that more people are just picking Democrats. Franks also was unopposed except for a write-in candidate.

DuPage County voted its first ever Democrat into the Illinois Senate, and Franks argued that no amount of redistricting can make DuPage a Democratic county.

He suspects that voters are fed up with political gridlock and politicians who refuse to compromise, he said.

Does this mean the Republican Party needs to shift gears?

It’s too early to make judgment calls, state Sen. Pamela Althoff, R-McHenry, said.

“I think the Republican Party needs to take a long, hard, strategic look at what these election results meant,” said Althoff, who also did not face an election challenge.

Also unopposed, state Rep. Mike Tryon, R-Crystal Lake, said he doesn’t think it’s an issue with the Republicans’ message, which he said worked very well in McHenry County. Instead, he pointed to funding and election strategies.

But before any of the new legislators take the floor in spring, the current General Assembly has to wrap up the November veto session and a lame-duck session.

And there are an awful lot of lame ducks this time around, Franks said.

He said he worries this could lead to a repeat of two years ago when a tax increase was pushed through with the help of outgoing legislators, but this time the issue will be pension reform.

The state is on the hook for billions of dollars in pension benefits after decades during which it failed to make its contribution to pension funds.

But solving the issue during the lame-duck session might be a political necessity, Althoff said, because newly elected legislators might be feeling politically “vulnerable.”

If the issue does hold off until new legislators take their seats, Tryon said, such significant majorities could let Democratic leadership push through some of its proposed plans, including one that shifts some of the pension costs onto local school districts.

Veto-proof majorities don’t equal a slam dunk, though, Franks said. He, for one, said he would not vote for such a plan.

“I’m not a pocket vote for anybody,” Franks said. “I’ve never voted for a tax increase. There may be a label of 71 Democrats, but you can’t count on every Democrat.”

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