SPRINGFIELD — Illinois House Republicans on Thursday picked as their new leader a former Cook County prosecutor known for tough anti-crime stances but also for his work to clean up a broken justice system littered with wrongful convictions.
The ascension of Rep. Jim Durkin, 52, of Western Springs to be the leader of the out-of-power caucus in the House means that all four Democratic and Republican legislative leaders are from Cook County. Having all of the so-called Four Tops from Cook is unusual given that the dynamics of the party and regional politics historically have spread out those positions.
"I'm excited about the prospects of the future," said Durkin, pledging to reduce the 71-47 Democratic majority enjoyed by House Speaker Michael Madigan of Chicago.
Durkin will take over the job from Tom Cross, a Kendall County lawmaker who has held the top House GOP post since 2003. After a transition period, Durkin will assume Cross' duties around Sept. 20.
Cross, who had urged the caucus to choose a new leader, is expected to announce his bid for state treasurer within weeks. The current treasurer, Dan Rutherford, is running for the Republican nomination for governor, leaving Cross an opening to run. Cross will keep his House seat as he runs statewide next year.
Rep. Raymond Poe of Springfield, a Downstate favorite among the House GOP, had jockeyed for the leadership position with Durkin as Cross made it known over the past few months that he was looking to move up, but Durkin said he had 32 votes going into a closed-door caucus. He only needed 24 to win the job.
Poe, conceding his candidacy fell short of support, said he nominated Durkin and declared, like many of his peers emerging from the meeting, that the House GOP troops now are united.
Republicans have chafed over the loss of seven seats in the 2012 election, when they suffered from a major Democratic turnout driven by home-state President Barack Obama at the top of the ticket. GOP lawmakers also were hurt by new legislative districts drawn by Democrats.
Durkin said he is "more than happy" to work with his new House counterpart, Speaker Madigan.
At the same time, Durkin has vowed to raise money aggressively and get more bang for the bucks the House GOP has. He has been among Cross' internal critics who feared House Republicans had failed to position themselves well enough to cut into Madigan's majority, pointing to how the House GOP campaign fund had sunk to $21,000 by midsummer.
Senate Republican leader Christine Radogno of Lemont, who shares constituents with Durkin in overlapping legislative districts, called Durkin "thoughtful, pragmatic and extremely well-versed in the issues of importance to Illinois citizens" and said she looked forward to partnering with him in working to resolve the state's pension crisis.
Over the years, Durkin worked to change laws to crack down on prosecutorial misconduct as well as other proposals that sought to help avoid wrongful convictions. He served as the top House GOP lawmaker on the committee that first recommended impeachment of Gov. Rod Blagojevich and played the role of a prosecutor in the hearings that led to the expulsion last year of Rep. Derrick Smith, the Chicago Democrat charged with bribery.
Even so, Durkin is viewed as too moderate by some corners of his caucus. Still, he is seen as a man who can raise money in the Chicago area, where the biggest bucks can be found.
Durkin is opposed to same-sex marriage, which passed the Senate but stalled in the House. He said he did not expect the measure to emerge "anytime soon," though supporters have pushed to bring the issue up in the fall veto session.
In next year's governor primary, Durkin backs Sen. Kirk Dillard, a Hinsdale Republican who lost the 2010 primary by 193 votes.
In 2002, Durkin lost a bid to knock out U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and later rejoined the state House. He led Illinois efforts in the presidential bid of U.S. Sen. John McCain, D-Ariz.
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