CHICAGO – Democrats swept nearly every statewide office and won majorities in both houses of the state legislature in Illinois. Democratic Sen. Richard Durbin was easily re-elected over a little known Republican, Jim Durkin. Durkin excoriated Durbin for having voted against war with Iraq, but this made no difference to voters.

For the first time in 30 years a Democrat will be governor, when Rep. Rod Blagojevich assumes office in January. He defeated Republican Attorney General Jim Ryan. Voters elected the first woman as the new Attorney General when they elected State Sen. Lisa Madigan as the “people’s attorney general.” She beat out right-wing DuPage County State’s Attorney Joe Birkett.

Both the House and the Senate in Illinois will now have Democratic majorities, for the first time in decades. The existing Democratic margin in the House was increased to 64 of the 118 seats, while the Republicans lost their small Senate majority and now face a similar Democratic majority, 32 out of 59 seats.

The one Republican victory was Rep. John Shimkus over Democratic Rep. David Phelps in the 19th CD, in the southern part of the state. Redistricting after the 2000 census led to the loss of one Congressional District in Illinois, leading to the head-to-head race between the two incumbent congressmen. Phelps was at a disadvantage, since the newly redistricted seat was largely from Shimkus’ old district. Yet he didn’t fully distinguish himself from Shimkus’ conservative agenda.

The Democratic sweep was made possible by the total unity of a coalition of labor, the African American and Latino communities and many women’s organizations. The independent forces joined in coalition with the various Democratic Party machines who united around the candidates.

The state AFL-CIO had implemented an ambitious independent drive to register 250,000 workers and their families and turn out 90 percent of the union vote. Huge get-out-the-vote rallies were held with the aim of electing the governor and changing the state senate.

The Republican candidates emerged from a fractious primary and ran on a right-wing agenda. This prompted outgoing Republican Gov. George Ryan, author of the state death penalty moratorium and advocate of normalization of relations with Cuba, to declare that the party would continue to suffer such crushing defeats as long as it ran such candidates.

Voters were also reacting to corruption scandals of the Ryan administration, and to unpopular cuts in social spending that the Governor and his fellow Republicans have pushed as their response to a two billion dollar state budget shortfall. The drastic layoffs of workers in Illinois also helped to sour voters on the Republican incumbents. In addition, Jim Ryan and Birkett received extremely negative publicity throughout the campaign because of their racist role in almost executing an innocent man, Rolando Cruz, for a 1983 child murder

The election was also marked by the election of Rev. James Meeks to the state senate. Meeks, president of Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, ran as an independent with solid backing from labor and the African-American churches. His multi-racial campaign was in alliance with the statewide Democratic slate against the ultra right. He unseated an entrenched corrupt Democratic machine candidate who had often sided with Republican legislators.

The Green Party won permanent ballot status when their candidates in Oak Park and on the North side received over 5 percent of the vote.

The new Democratic governor and legislature will have their work cut out for them as the state faces imminent failure of many public institutions due to the budget crisis. This will also be a big challenge for the coalition that was decisive in electing them.

The authors can be reached at pww@pww.org and jbachtell@pww.org

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