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SALMAGUNDI: When lawmakers quit, voters should get to name replacement

“Respect for my constituents and the Senate has convinced me that this action is necessary in order to proceed without distraction to the important work that needs to be accomplished throughout the state of Illinois in the future.”

So wrote Martin Sandoval, D-Chicago, in his letter announcing plans to resign from the Illinois Senate post he’s held since January 2003. On Sept. 24, federal agents executed a search warrant on Sandoval’s Statehouse office and home. Capitol News Illinois said agents sought documents and materials related to several businesses, including one that sells red light cameras to Chicago suburbs.

The respect for his constituents and the Senate Sandoval wrote about while quitting were lacking in his decision to skip the entirety of November’s veto session, as well as making his resignation effective Jan. 1, ensuring he’ll get full pay for four months following the investigation. He’d already resigned as chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, which makes the decision to linger seem like a transparent cash grab.

Since this is Illinois, Sandoval’s shady timing passes for the high road in contrast to his Senate colleague Tom Cullerton, D-Villa Park, who pleaded not guilty to the federal embezzlement charges levied against him Aug. 2 and seems to have every intention of finishing his term.

According to the employee salary database on the Illinois Comptroller’s website, Sandoval collects $5,800 per month as a legislator in 2019, grossing $71,500 through November and ready to earn another $11,600 on payday in December and January. In a state as broke as Illinois, it’s hard to get worked up over that principal more than the principle, but Sandoval is exploiting two loopholes at once.

In addition to massaging pay, Sandoval’s mid-term resignation allows someone to take his spot without winning a real election. Sandoval was elected last November to a term that runs through 2023. A special election to complete his term will be part of the Nov. 3 general election ballot, which means the seat will be part of the March primary. Candidates have a week to file nominating petitions starting today.

But in order to make sure the 11th District is represented this year in Springfield — or at least, to make sure someone besides Sandoval collects the paychecks — ward and township Democratic committee members will appoint a replacement to serve almost an entire year, through Dec. 7, when the general election is certified.

Filling a legislative vacancy by appointment is a right enshrined in the 1970 state constitution. The process is familiar to readers of this newspaper. Former state Rep. Frank Mautino got the job when his father died in office. He won several elections on his own, then quit the General Assembly to become auditor general, after which party bosses gave Andy Skoog the job.

In the 75th district, appointments are the rule and elections the exception. Voters elected Sue Rezin, R-Morris, to the House in November 2010, but when Granville’s Gary Dahl quit the state Senate a few weeks later, 38th District GOP leaders elevated Rezin. That opened the door for Pam Roth, also a Morris Republican. She won another term in 2012, but quit the next summer when her family moved to Texas.

GOP leaders from La Salle, Grundy, Kendall and Will counties interviewed several applicants and hired Kendall County sheriff’s deputy John Anthony. In 2014, Anthony handily won his first full term. He also won a primary in 2016, but resigned a few months later. The GOP turned to David Welter. He took office in July and replaced Anthony on the November ballot, winning a full term, then repeating while unopposed in 2018. He’ll run again next year.

Though the people choosing these appointees are elected officials in their own right, democracy isn’t better served with this process than by resolving vacancies through special election — especially since some who leave the Legislature retain their party leadership posts, such as recently resigned state Rep. Luis Arroyo.

Only four states fill vacancies through political party appointment, whereas 25 go straight to a special election. Many of those states have cleaner legislative boundaries making special elections simpler, and those arrangements are worth emulating as a new redistricting cycle looms.

Lawmakers being on the take is unacceptable. But voters feeling they lack a real voice in choosing their representatives does far more to undercut faith in government. Changing the rules would take a constitutional amendment, which seems unlikely given the state’s myriad other major problems.

If lawmakers truly respected constituents, these charades would end.

SCOTT T. HOLLAND is a former associate editor of The Times who continues to contribute his column plus help with editing and writing. He can be reached at newsroom@mywebtimes.com, facebook.com/salmagundi or twitter.com/sth749. 

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