Freshmen lawmakers give off a different vibe



I attended two parties in one evening last month that seemed to complement each other.

The first was a retirement party for House Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Currie (D-Chicago), who was elected to the House 40 years ago. The other was for one of the largest and perhaps one of the more impactful classes of incoming freshmen legislators we've ever seen.

Many either don't know or have forgotten how "controversial" it was when House Speaker Michael Madigan appointed Currie as his new majority leader in 1997.

Downstate Democrats considered that position to be "theirs" and believed the post gave their region a geographical balance to the Chicagoan Madigan. Those Downstaters (unlike now, the Democrats had quite a few back then) were furious at being passed over for one of the most liberal Chicago women in the chamber.

But a lot of Chicago-area liberals weren't happy, either. To them, Currie was a "sellout" for taking the appointment from the hated machine politician Madigan. It never occurred to most of them that Currie's new position would give their viewpoints an important seat at the grownups' table.

And quite a lot of those views are now state laws, partly due to Currie's leadership. She was pushing for things like legalized needle exchanges for heroin addicts in the early 1990s to help stem the spread of AIDS. She was waved off as a silly liberal back then, but few even think twice about the issue these days.

There's a ton of gossip out there about who Madigan will name to replace Currie. Madigan admitted during his tribute speech to Currie that whoever he chooses won't quite measure up to her.

Currie regularly spends hours preparing for floor debates. Madigan said during his speech that he often turns down requests to sponsor bills because he doesn't want to take the time to learn all the ins and outs. It's Currie who usually gets that job.

But she's also the sort of person who can consume a bill analysis in a few minutes and then proceed to ably debate it on the floor, often jousting with the opposition.

Those are both rare qualities. She also has a kind touch, another rarity in Springfield. And her old school Hyde Park intellectual manners are one of a kind in at the Statehouse. Madigan said it best that she can't ever truly be replaced.

After reminiscing during the Currie reception, I drove across Springfield to a banquet room to have dinner with several dozen people, including quite a few newbie state legislators.

Including appointments, I think there's 41 new legislators who either recently have or will take office by January. And we'll see two more in January when Sen. Kwame Raoul (D-Chicago) leaves for the attorney general's office and when Rep. Christian Mitchell takes (D-Chicago) over as a deputy governor in JB Pritzker's administration. And those ranks will swell as House and Senate members are appointed to jobs in the Pritzker administration.

I usually steer clear of freshmen. My job is to tell you what's going on, and few of them ever make news, or know enough about what's happening or are bold enough to talk to me about anything they do know.

But somehow this class of freshmen seems different. They appear to be markedly more independent-minded, and the Democrats among them seem to be more liberal as a whole. There's also so many of them that they won't be easily or quickly absorbed into the grind-and-mix machine.

They have a freshness about them that kinda reminds me of the group of young Republicans elected to the Senate in 1992. The "Fab Five" (Peter Fitzgerald, Steve Rauschenberger, Dave Syverson, Pat O'Malley and Chris Lauzen) took Springfield by storm. And by sticking together and voting as a bloc, they were able to have much more of an impact than they would've had as individuals.

Don't get me wrong here. I don't necessarily think the newbies will join together in union to challenge the Statehouse status quo. But there are so many of them, and quite a few are so different than what we're used to seeing under the Dome, that I do think they will make some sort of significant impact, although I'm not quite sure yet what exactly that will be.

And if you think I have a prediction for how Madigan will handle all this stuff in this new age, you're wrong. I'm as curious as anyone to see what happens.