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The Storied History of Illinois Choosing Its Second-in-Command


In 2010, lawmakers changed the rules for how the state picks its second-in-command. No longer would voters separately nominate candidates for lieutenant governor and governor in the primary, and hope for a successful match.



He tried to warn us. At the very least, he tried to be upfront about his past. That he'd been charged with domestic battery.

But the media at large, and voters by extension, didn't pay much attention to Scott Lee Cohen until he bested six other Democrats and won the party's nomination for lieutenant governor. Within five days, Cohen announced his resignation.

A steady drip of stories had come out in the intervening days, describing in squalid details Cohen's past as "an abusive prostitute-dating steroid user" -- as he was described in a caption alongside an article at the time.

The Illinois law for selecting its lieutenant governors had remained unchanged for four decades. It didn't change when the office sat vacant because a lieutenant governor resigned out of boredom or when its occupant resigned to host a radio show. Even after a Democratic gubernatorial nominee abandoned the ticket rather than run alongside an extremist who'd won the primary for lieutenant governor, the law stayed the same.

But following the Cohen debacle, legislators wasted no time. In mid-February 2010, state Rep. Lou Lang, D-Skokie, introduced legislation inspired by Cohen's surprise victory. Come mid-July it was law. No longer would Illinois voters separately nominate candidates for lieutenant governor and governor in the primary, and hope for the arranged political marriage. From then on, they'd run together in the primary -- As a team.

The Illinois lieutenant governor has but two duties, per the Constitution. The first is for a lieutenant governor to be first to in the order of succession if "the Governor is unable to serve because of death, conviction on impeachment, failure to qualify, resignation or other disability."

The only other directive is that he or she "shall perform the duties and exercise the powers ... that may be delegated to him by the Governor and that may be prescribed by law." Given this oblique mission, proposals to do away with the office entirely periodically gain steam; but to do so would require a Constitutional amendment.

The Constitution's drafters did, however, provide flexibility in how Illinois can choose its lieutenant governor. While the Illinois Constitution mandates that voters must cast a joint vote for a governor/lieutenant governor team in the general election, it gives legislators discretion until that point.

Lawmakers used that discretion for the first time in 2010.

"Blagojevich wasn't for me"

There's a touch of situational irony in how Illinois arrived at the current setup: in 2010 Gov. Pat Quinn signed the law, Public Act 96-1018, requiring a governor and his lieutenant to run in tandem during the primary -- even though his own ascent to the governorship was born of his voter-induced pairing with Rod Blagojevich on the Democratic tickets in 2002 and 2006.

Quinn, who is currently running for attorney general, says the "powers that be" -- party and labor leaders -- favored other candidates over him on that first campaign.

"They definitely had all the endorsements and, frankly, all the money," Quinn says of Michael Kelleher and Joyce Washington, the other Democratic lieutenant hopefuls that year. "Blagojevich wasn't for me. He didn't want me to win."

But win he did -- meaning that, whatever Blagojevich's wishes, the two would run together on the general election ticket. Quinn says, regardless, he was essentially running his own campaign that fall. "This was a blessing," he said. "They never put my names on signs. It was just Blagojevich."

The relationship, by all accounts, remained distant even after Blagojevich became the first Democrat in a quarter century to occupy the governor's mansion and Quinn his second-in-command.

Nonetheless, they were once again running mates four years later -- intentionally so, this time -- and Quinn stood up for Blagojevich in 2006, even as the governor was already under an ethical cloud. "In all my interactions with him," Quinn said, "I've found him to be an honest person."

Former Gov. Rod Blagojevich in his arrest photo on Dec. 10, 2008.

Still, when Blagojevich was arrested on public-corruption charges and subsequently impeached and removed from office midway through his second term, Quinn was able to credibly detach himself from Blagojevich's sins. Onlookers gave him a standing ovation when he took the oath of office to succeed Blagojevich as the 41st governor of Illinois. He was an "accidental governor," generally viewed as untarnished by his predecessor's bad deeds.

Subsequent lieutenant governors won't have as easy a time claiming that degree of separation, given that they'll have actively chosen to be matched.

The change traces back to Cohen.

Cohen's Resignation

The "lite gov" post had gone unfilled since Quinn's 2009 swearing in as governor, so a crew of six Democrats jumped at the opportunity the next year to fill the empty seat, including longtime establishment politicians like House Speaker Michael Madigan's ally, Rep. Art Turner of Chicago, and Sen. Terry Link of Waukegan.

A billboard advertising Scott Lee Cohen's run to be the Democrat nominee in the lieutenant governor election of 2010.

But it was pawnbroker Scott Lee Cohen, a political neophyte, with his $2 million in ads promoting job fairs, who voters warmed to most.

Cohen captured 26 percent of the vote, nearly four points more than runner-up Turner.

With contested primaries on both sides of the aisle at the top of the ticket, reporters collectively paid relatively scant attention to the lieutenant governor's race.

Cohen had attempted to, as Sun-Times columnist Mark Brown wrote at the time, make a "pre-emptive strike" with a candid revelation that he'd been charged with domestic battery, but the charges had been dropped.

It was only after he'd captured the prize that his personal history played out in the headlines: His divorce papers spilling his ex-wife's recollections of Cohen forcing himself on her and writing threatening messages in lipstick on her mirrors. The revelation that the ex-girlfriend who'd accused him of battery was a prostitute; that she'd accused him of putting a knife to her throat -- the police report noted the tell-tale marks -- though the charges were dropped when she didn't show in court.

"I assure you, I promise you, I never touched the woman. I never tried to cut her throat. I never did anything like that," Cohen told WTTW-TV's Chicago Tonight, with his ex-wife, Debra York-Cohen by his side as a character-witness.

"I have answered every question that was asked me by the media in a full complete and honest way," Cohen said. "Again, I tried so hard to put this out the day I announced so it wouldn't come to this. Nobody wanted to listen."

Cohen insisted there was no way he'd give up the nomination but, by the end of the week, Cohen said the pressure was too much.

Cohen invited journalists to the Hop Haus tavern in Chicago during the 2010 Super Bowl. As bar patrons cheered on the New Orleans Saints to their first-ever Super Bowl win, Cohen made an announcement: He was dropping out and renouncing his nomination as the Democratic Party nominee for lieutenant governor.

'Blind Marriage' System

Prior to the constitutional rewrite in 1970, the "blind marriage" setup was riskier. The races for lieutenant governor and the top job were completely separate through the general election, meaning members of different parties could, and did, ultimately win each position.

The most obvious hitch of the arrangement: Should anything have happened that would have required a transfer of power, a Republican governor could have been replaced by a Democrat.

The Constitution adopted in 1970 considered this, so that now voters cast ballots jointly for governor and lieutenant governor in the general election, such that the victors would be de facto members of the same party.

From then until 2010, the lieutenant governor and governor primary contests were disconnected.

Neil Hartigan

Neil Hartigan was the first to be elected to the No. 2 spot under the new constitutional provisions, in 1972. The drawbacks immediately became obvious.

Hartigan had campaigned in the primary alongside his top pick for governor, Paul Simon. While Hartigan won the lieutenant governor's primary race, Democratic voters chose Dan Walker as their gubernatorial nominee.

The two coordinated efforts, campaigned together, and were elected. But, as Hartigan tells it, the day after the election, Walker demanded Hartigan resign his committeeman post and denounce Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley.

When Hartigan refused, he says Walker threatened to strip him of all duties: no office, no car, no job. Walker and Hartigan spent their terms operating independently of one another, feuding even, as Hartigan actively worked to get policies passed that Walker wasn't on board with, such as the creation of the Department on Aging.

The LaRouches

The pitfalls of the 1972-2010 setup again flared in 1986.

Democrats ran a full slate of candidates on a "unity ticket" in the primary: Adlai Stevenson III would make his second go at Republican Gov. Jim Thompson, with then State Rep. George Sangmeister as the preferred candidate for lieutenant governor, Hartigan for attorney general and Aurelia Pucinski for secretary of state.

George Sangmeister

But members of the "unity" ticket weren't the only ones listed as Democrats on the ballot. Stevenson and Hartigan won their races. The "unity" candidates for lieutenant governor and secretary of state, however, lost to Mark Fairchild and Janice Hart -- acolytes of Lyndon LaRouche, an extremist and conspiracy theorist with a veering ideology -- who'd run as Democrats.

The results sent shockwaves that reverberated through the general election and remain in the canons of the state's political lore.

In the mid-80s, the LaRouche platform espoused by Fairchild and Hart called for "mandatory testing for AIDS and quarantining those who have the disease, reversal of the Gramm-Rudman budget-balancing law, and a crash program to build a "'Star Wars'-type laser defense system," according to an L.A. Times article.

Speculation was that the overconfident state Democratic Party was too lax in campaigning and that uninformed Democratic voters simply chose the innocuous surnames Fairchild and Hart over the more complicated, ethnic-sounding Sangmeister and Pucinski.

"It was a body blow to the party," says Thom Serafin, a public affairs consultant who handled Pucinski's press operations in 1986. "It was like a meteor hitting the earth."

Voters' choice meant that Stevenson was suddenly tethered to Fairchild. Their political aspirations were intertwined. And, if Stevenson won the governor's office, Fairchild would be his lieutenant governor -- a heartbeat away from the state's highest office. Stevenson refused to go down that path.

He renounced his hard-won nomination, and instead he ran for governor under the banner of the new Solidarity Party. The gamble that didn't work, and voters chose to keep Thompson in office for another term.

The hostile takeover, a wakeup call to both parties in Illinois and nationally, wasn't enough to prompt a change in state law.

Serafin says that, after the LaRouche debacle, there was talk in Springfield of switching to a unified ballot. But he says Thompson had a "lot of other issues to deal with at the time. This was not an issue that came to the forefront."

Identity Politics?

Sheila Simon

The issue rose to the forefront 24 years later via Scott Lee Cohen. Democratic leaders feared Cohen would drag Quinn down, and with him the party's chances for holding on to the governorship.

While Quinn came close to being saddled with a running mate with heavy baggage, Cohen ultimately may have done him a favor. Cohen's departure gave Democratic Party leaders the opportunity to choose someone to fill the spot.

Their choice: Sheila Simon.

You could consider Simon a bridge between how Illinois filled the lieutenant governor's post from 1970 until 2014, the first election cycle when the Cohen-instigated law took effect. It's worth noting that Simon's father, Paul Simon, was the last lieutenant governor under the pre-1970 constitutional changes, and a prime example of why drafters abandoned that old framework; Paul Simon, a Democrat, was lieutenant to Republican Gov. Richard Ogilvie.

Democrat Paul Simon served as lieutenant governor under Republican Gov. Richard Ogilvie.

Despite that pedigree, Sheila Simon says she'd never considered running for the lieutenant governor's job. But after Cohen was pushed out, Democratic leaders like U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin encouraged her to apply.

She suspects it "didn't hurt" that "many people remember my parents fondly" -- her mother, Jeanne Hurley Simon, was an activist and state representative -- and that she was a lawyer with experience in local government as a member of the Carbondale City Council.

Plus, Simon was a woman with name recognition, from downstate -- a demographic Democrats otherwise were lacking on the statewide slate.

The ability to handpick a running mate who appeals to a new demographic, who bumps up a gubernatorial candidates' bona fides and who fills in a gubernatorial candidate's missing resume gaps is a key feature of the new system.

"Good government is good politics, and you could also say that good politics is good government," Serafin says. "With regard to diversity on your ticket, that's just an asset. That's just smart politics. That makes good government. If you have that opportunity to bring somebody into your tent, you do that. Not only do you increase your opportunity for more votes, but also for more diversity of opinion."

A cynic could easily characterize it as identity politics.

Of the three leading contenders in this year's Democratic primary -- state Sen. Daniel Biss, President John F. Kennedy's nephew Chris Kennedy, and Hyatt Hotel heir J.B. Pritzker -- each chose black running mates: State Rep. Litesa Wallace of Rockford, civic leader Ra Joy, and State Rep. Juliana Stratton of Chicago, respectively.

On the Republican front, Gov. Bruce Rauner once again will be on the ballot with his 2014 running mate, Lt. Gov. Evelyn Sanguinetti, the first Latina to hold that position. His challenger, suburbanite State Rep. Jeanne Ives, went to Rock Island for her running mate, former State Rep. Richard Morthland, a farmer.

A Thorough Vetting Process

Sanguinetti, the first lieutenant governor to have been on the ballot alongside the gubernatorial candidate in both the primary and general election, says she and Rauner "completely hit it off" from the onset.

One of her former students from John Marshall Law School, who was working for Rauner's campaign, had reached out: Rauner was seeking a running mate; she should send in a resume.

Rauner's team evidently liked what they saw: an attorney whose political experience started and ended as a member of the Wheaton City Council. They proposed a formal meeting. She ducked out from her job at a law firm and met with Rauner at a Corner Bakery. "From beginning to end, we were bugging out," she says, laughing, in sync.

Then began a thorough vetting process.

It's a key distinction between the previous and current methods of selecting a lieutenant governor. Previously, anyone whose petitions were in order could qualify for the ballot; it was up to the media and public to research a candidate for state government's number-two position.

Under the new method, Sanguinetti -- as, to an extent, Sheila Simon before her -- had her background checked, credentials verified and records scoured by powerful, monied backers before they were presented to voters.

Cohen surely never would have gotten past such scrutiny.

Test Case

Sanguinetti and Rauner ultimately went from the Corner Bakery to the statehouse version of a "corner office" and, Sanguinetti says, they've remained in sync.

Lt. Gov. Evelyn Sanguinetti and Gov. Bruce Rauner

"It functions as a partnership," Sanguinetti says of her relationship with the governor. "We were the test case. There was a change in legislation; we were able to pick one another and be on the same ticket. And that is incredibly significant. We agree with each other's philosophy. We're in sync, and we're better able to help voters."

Sanguinetti says it doesn't mean she and Rauner are "absolute twins."

The example Sanguinetti gives is medical marijuana. She has multiple sclerosis, and says a "number of conditions" should qualify for medical marijuana. Meanwhile, Rauner views cannabis as "a gateway drug."

But it was their differing views on abortion that tested their partnership.Sanguinetti's mom "chose to have me and to keep me when she was just 15 years of age. Clearly, I have always been pro-life."

She says she "was saddened" by Rauner's decision, therefore, to sign into law House Bill 40, a measure to expand the circumstances under which Illinois would cover abortions for state employees and Medicaid recipients. "He did say 'I need you to be with me. We are a team,'" Sanguinetti said. "I asked that he give me some time to pray on it."

Ultimately, Sanguinetti stuck with Rauner. She says they had an event together a week or so later and "we both understood there was a resolution."

The abortion issue played a major role in effectively splitting the Illinois Republican Party and garnered Rauner his primary challenge from Ives.

Despite the dispute, Sanguinetti says she and Rauner are in sync and, she says, that's helpful should she ever be called on to move from serving on task forces to serving as the state's chief executive.

"Too early to tell"

A former senior official with Gov. Rauner's office gave a candid review of how the "test case" has panned out, on condition of anonymity.

Credit Brian Mackey / NPR Illinois | 91.9 UIS
Pat Quinn, former governor of Illinois, is currently running for Attorney General.

He says the system of selecting a running mate versus a lieutenant governor running on his or her own has "made the office a little less powerful, a little less important … In the past, (people who ran for lieutenant governor) had some sort of established power base for themselves," he says, citing Quinn as an example.

"It used to be you needed to do something to get elected: made a name for yourself already, or have a lot of money to spend," the former Rauner official says. "Back in the old days, they were ... better politicians because they'd gotten elected to a statewide office, or at least nominated on their own."

Illinois could have pursued alternatives beyond outright eliminating the lieutenant governor's office, which would require a constitutional amendment.

Another possibility would have gubernatorial candidates compete solo in the primary, and only once voters have chosen a nominee would the winning candidate choose a running mate for the general election.

Quinn says he was happy to have had the opportunity to choose Simon as his running mate, and he supposes that's what he had in mind when he signed the law clearing the path for future governors to do the same. He says it's important to have an ombudsman in the lieutenant governor's office, someone who can handle the assignment.

Whether the current method is the best method for choosing someone to fill that role, he can't yet say.

Quinn says, "Democracy is an opportunity to be a laboratory for change, I guess and we'll see how this works, I think it's a little too early to tell."

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Illinois Issues is in-depth reporting and analysis that takes you beyond the headlines to provide a deeper understanding of our state. Illinois Issues is produced by NPR Illinois in Springfield.

Amanda Vinicky moved to Chicago Tonight on WTTW-TV PBS in 2017.