State Rep. Kelly Cassidy, D-Chicago, presents herself as a champion of progressivism and good government. She sponsored the Reproductive Health Act, which guarantees a women’s right to abortion in Illinois. She sponsored the bill legalizing recreational marijuana. Last year, Cassidy was one of 19 representatives to sign a letter vowing not to re-elect Michael Madigan as speaker, due to his alleged involvement in the ComEd bribery scandal.
And yet, Cassidy is primed to move up to the state senate using one of the oldest Machine tricks in the book: the handoff.
Here’s how it works: State Sen. Heather Steans, who was re-elected just two months ago to represent a district covering Rogers Park, Edgewater, and Andersonville, resigned last week, having suddenly decided that “it’s time for new faces and fresh energy.”
In Illinois, when a state legislator dies or quits, their replacement is picked by the district’s committeepeople: an unpaid County-level position elected during presidential or gubernatorial primaries. In Chicago, there’s one for each ward. Oftentimes, it’s the alderman.
In Steans’s district, one of those committeepeople is Cassidy, who holds 21 percent of the weighted vote to pick a new senator. Cassidy also has the endorsement of Steans, who told the Tribune, “Rep. Cassidy would make a great senator.”
If Cassidy is appointed senator, that will open up her state House seat, which would also be filled by appointment. As 49th Ward Committeeperson, Cassidy controls 48 percent of the weighted vote in her House district, meaning she can pick her own successor.
As the members of the neighborhood group Indivisible IL-9 Andersonville-Edgewater see it, the fix is in. Again.
Citing a long history of North Side politicians handing off legislative seats to their allies, they’re circulating a petition asking the 7th Senate District’s committeepeople to appoint a placeholder senator who won’t run in next year’s Democratic primary. Over the weekend, the group’s members handed out flyers at the corner of Clark and Berwyn.
“In Chicago, our ‘progressive’ leaders avoid fair elections through ‘resign and appoint,’” the flyers read. “In this system, well-connected political insiders skip over the elections by installing their friends when they retire, instead of giving the choice to voters through a free and fair election.”
Leni Manaa-Hoppenworth, the group’s co-founder, said its campaign has been called “naive” and “unfortunate” by local politicians who gained their offices through this system. But, she argues, the last Far North Side state senator who was fairly chosen by the voters was Arthur Berman.
That was in 1976.
Illinois is one of only four states in which local party officials fill legislative vacancies, along with Indiana, North Dakota, and Colorado. Twenty-five states employ the most democratic method, special elections. The rest defer to the governor, county commissioners, a legislative chamber (Ohio), or hybrid methods.
Indivisible Illinois says the system gives politicians a motivation to step down mid-term, because they know they can choose their successors. Let’s be honest: Few Chicagoans know or care who their state representative is, so few Chicagoans notice when a House seat is passed off like an heirloom.
“This is the Chicago Machine at its finest,” Manaa-Hoppenworth said. “Its purpose is to keep political power in the hands of the few. This is a race and class issue. If you’re appointed, you don’t have to invest any resources [in an election].”
Of course, the handoff is not unique to Illinois’s 7th Senate District. It’s a staple of North Side politics. Just look at how some other neighboring officials got where they are today. (Don’t hate the player, hate the game.)
- State Rep. Kelly Cassidy: Appointed to the state House in 2011 when Harry Osterman was elected alderman. In 2019, the Democratic Party of the 49th Ward chose Cassidy to replace former Ald. Joe Moore as Committeeperson. If Cassidy gets the senate seat, it will be the third office she has gained by appointment, rather than election.
- State Sen. Sara Feigenholtz: Feigenholtz, a former state representative, was appointed to replace retiring state Sen. John Cullerton in 2020. (Her appointed replacement in the state House, however, was defeated in last year’s Democratic primary by Margaret Croke. So that handoff didn’t work out.)
- State Rep. Greg Harris: In 2006, state Rep. Larry McKeon won the Democratic primary, then decided not to run in the general election. Harris was chosen to replace McKeon on the ballot. (That’s the same trick Congressman Bill Lipinski used to hand off his seat to his son, Dan, who held onto it for 16 years until Marie Newman beat him in 2020.)
- Ald. Tom Tunney: Mayor Richard M. Daley appointed Tunney to the City Council in 2003, after Ald. Bernie Hansen resigned.
- Cook County Commissioner Bridget Gainer: Gainer, the daughter of a well-connected AT&T lobbyist, was appointed to the county board by local commiteepeople in 2009, after Mike Quigley won the special election to replace Rahm Emanuel in Congress.
- State Sen. Heather Steans: Two weeks before the filing deadline for the 2008 Democratic primary, state Sen. Carol Ronen (appointed to replace Arthur Berman, who retired mid-term in 2000 after serving 22 years), suddenly decided not to run again. As her successor, Ronen endorsed Steans, who had hosted fundraisers for her, and who was the only candidate with the means to collect 1,000 signatures on such short notice.
- Ald. Harry Osterman: Osterman is a political legacy. His mother, Kathy Osterman, was 48th Ward alderman from 1987 to 1989, when she resigned to become director of Mayor Richard M. Daley’s Office of Special Events. Daley appointed her successor, Mary Ann Smith. Osterman was appointed to the state House in 2001 to replace Ronen (see above). He was elected to his mother’s old City Council seat in 2011, succeeding Smith, whom he had served as an aide. Osterman is also 48th Ward committeeperson, controlling the largest weighted vote in the Steans Senate appointment, which means he’ll run the meeting. (Osterman was elected committeeperson by the voters in March 2020, after Ronen stepped down from the post.)
On Tuesday, January 26, at 7:30 p.m., Indivisible IL-9 will discuss the Steans appointment at its regular weekly Zoom meeting.
40th Ward Committeeperson Maggie O’Keefe, one of nine voting on the vacancy, sympathizes with the group’s concerns about the process: “It limits the amount of folks that feel like they can run for office,” she said.
But O’Keefe wouldn’t sign the group’s petition, because she doesn’t want to tie the hands of the next senator.
“Whoever is appointed, what if we like them in that seat?” O’Keefe asked. “What if that person does a really good job with education or redistricting reform?”
The 7th Senate District’s committeepeople are circulating an application for the seat, and will gather on February 6th at the Swedish-American Museum, 5211 N. Clark St., to interview candidates and make the appointment. Mike Simmons, owner of Blue Sky Strategies, a political consulting firm, has also declared his interest in the seat.
However, Cassidy’s selection is considered such a fait accompli that Politico is already speculating on who will be appointed to replace her in the House.
Most are politically connected. That’s how you win when your only constituents are other politicians.