November 12, 2008
BY CAROL MARIN Sun-Times Columnist
The trays of salami, cheese and toasted ravioli will be ready when Illinois' Democratic state senators walk through the door of Saputo's Italian restaurant in Springfield early this evening.
The only thing missing will be baloney but, no worries, lawmakers will get their fill when the speeches begin and their more ambitious colleagues start pitching that they should be the next president of the Illinois State Senate.
This is the rarest of moments in any legislative session. It's when the "'shrooms" are permitted to come out of the dark, blinking their little legislative eyes at the power of the light. The only time they have a voice in their pitiful fate.
"'Shrooms" -- short for "mushrooms" -- is code in Springfield for rank-and-file lawmakers who, thanks to the iron grip of their leadership, are irrelevant to critical decision-making. The term was coined decades ago when a House member stuck a sign on his desk offering a bleak commentary: "Welcome to the land of the mushrooms where they keep you in the dark and pile s - - - on your head."
Whether it's the all-powerful speaker of the House, Michael Madigan, or the I'm-the-Boss-Now Senate President Emil Jones, the rules that govern each chamber are meant to clip the wings of the rank and file and keep the leadership in complete control. Without a leader's OK, forget about getting a bill out of committee, a prime committee assignment, a leadership post or heaven help you, forget about financial help come Election Day.
Ah, but in the Senate, Jones is retiring. Not, of course, before installing his son, Emil III, now known as "Three-Mil." Jones' departure makes way for a new leader.
Jones, whose party returned to the majority after the tyrannical reign of his Republican predecessor, Pate Philip, was elected president in 2002. Allied with the incoming governor, Rod Blagojevich, the two united against Madigan and there's been god-awful legislative gridlock ever since.
Phil Rock, who was Senate president from 1979 to 1993, mourns the current debacle in Springfield, saying, "It hurts those of us who love the system to see it like this." New leadership, perhaps, will bring some progress.
Now, a raft of senators wants to take the reins of the Senate, promising the dawn of a new day. John Cullerton of Chicago and James Clayborne of Belleville are the front-runners. But also in the hunt are Jeffrey Schoenberg of Evanston, Ira Silverstein of Chicago, Don Harmon of Oak Park, Terry Link of Vernon Hills, and Donne Trotter of Chicago. (Five whites, two blacks, no women, no Hispanics.)
'Shrooms, this is your chance, assuming you haven't already sold out your vote in a backroom deal to one of these guys.
Which candidate is going to give you back your dignity as a legislator?
Which candidate is going to promise that your bills can actually get out of committee instead of being impaled on a hook in the Rules Committee? Which will promise to allow amendments to actually be debated on the floor again?
Which candidate will pledge to give you, futile fungi, the right to vote not just for Senate president but the rest of your leadership, including the majority leader, the caucus chair and the whips?
This is always a tough vote, according to Rock. "When Tom Hynes ran in 1973," he said by phone from his Chicago law office, "it took 187 ballots."
Nobody's got the votes to win at the moment. Good.
'Shrooms, rise up!
When the beauty contest begins in Saputo's backroom tonight and those contestant-colleagues of yours strut down the runway, hold their feet to the fire. You got elected by people who thought you could get something done for them in Springfield. Don't let yourself be humiliated by proving, once again, that you can't.