SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) — Illinois’ new Legislature got underway Wednesday with pledges of selflessness laden with the symbolism of America’s Civil War president, the wisdom of a recently departed mother and a young son and the Hebrew word that Moses used to answer God’s call to lead the Exodus.
As 177 members of the 103rd General Assembly were sworn in at separate capital-city locations, Democrats flaunting record majorities promised cooperation and pursuit of goals larger than themselves. Republicans, a dwindling but scrappy camp, cautiously accepted the olive branch but warned that opposition awaits Democratic excess.
Speaking from the Old State Capitol rostrum where Abraham Lincoln delivered his June 1858 “House Divided” speech, newly reelected Senate President Don Harmon noted that Lincoln’s call for slavery’s demise cost him a U.S. Senate seat. Even though Lincoln had no idea the same idea would make him president two years later, he knew that people needed to hear the words even advisers said were too radical, Harmon said.
“The debate had gone on far too long and it was time to pick a side,” Harmon said from the historic site, the ceremony displaced by renovation of the current Capitol.
He recalled the advice of his mother, Margaret, who died at 93 on New Year’s Day — “I don’t worry you won’t do the right thing when you go to Springfield; I worry that Springfield will change your notion of what the right thing is” — and challenged his colleagues to contemplate Lincoln’s words when deciding what they wanted to accomplish for their constituents.
“What is the best for them?” Harmon said. “Be guided by that truth whether it’s politically convenient or not. If your motivations are elsewhere, the Illinois Senate isn’t for you.”
In a benediction following the theme, Rabbi Shoshanah Conover of Temple Shalom in Chicago summed it up in Hebrew: “Hineni,” or “Here I am.” It was Moses’ response when at the burning bush God summoned him to lead enslaved Jews from Egypt, according to the Old Testament of the Bible.
“Hineni is a way in which to respond to a great call. It’s a way in which saying, not only I’m here, but I’m truly present. I’m ready to serve,” Conover said. “I’m here for a greater purpose than myself.”
Democrats control two-thirds of all seats, with a record 78-40 majority in the House and 40-19 in the Senate, thanks largely to what many regard as a highly gerrymandered legislative district map designed not only for the Illinois Democratic faithful but to help the party’s numbers in the U.S. House.
The Legislature welcomes 16 new senators and two dozen new representatives, including the youngest ever elected, 22-year-old Brad Fritts, a Dixon Republican.
While Harmon relied on the wisdom of preceding generations, at the House ceremony at the University of Illinois at Springfield, Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch turned to a successor.
Days ago at breakfast, his 10-year-old son, Tyler, asked him whether the Illinois Constitution begins with “We the People.” Its preamble does, and what followed was a father-and-son journey through what the speaker called “a beautiful beginning” to a document dedicated to the common good.
“Tyler asked me that question … because I think he was put there to remind me, so I can remind all of you, that that’s Illinois’ ‘why,‘” Welch said. “That’s all of our ‘why.’”
The GOP gained a Senate seat but lost five House posts, a dismal turnout that led to a Republican leadership shakeup: John Curran of Downers Grove replaces Dan McConchie of Hawthorn Woods as Senate minority leader and Tony McCombie of Savanna was elected House minority leader upon the resignation of Jim Durkin of Western Springs, who also stepped down from the House.
McCombie accepted Welch’s offer to work together, and agreed with other leaders: “No, this position is not about you. It’s about them — represent your districts. Be present. Be engaged and never forget why you are here.”
But she also issued a warning about the growing partisan imbalance of the Legislature and the strength of the minority to provide the checks and balances necessary in democracy. She vowed, “It will be difficult, but we will claw back in the wake of the worst gerrymandered maps in the country.”
Curran’s elevation to Senate minority leader pleased Democrats, who find him easier to work with than other Republicans. In his nominating speech, Sen. Jason Plummer of Edwardsville joked that he had taught Curran about the red “no” voting button. But Curran recognized his role in the opposition.
“We will be thoughtful and genuine in our attempts to find opportunities to collaborate on behalf of the families and employers of Illinois, Curran said. ”And we will continue to be steadfast in our voiceful opposition to misplaced policies that will hold our citizens and job creators back.”