(from the September 16-22, 2015 edition of the Chicago Defender
Fifth District State Representative Kenneth “Ken” Dunkin seems to have no problem keeping his family commitments and travel schedule even if it comes into conflict with Illinois Speaker of the House Michael Madigan’s political power plays. Some might even infer that those “family commitments and travel schedule” include a broader family, the residents of his district, and in some cases the even larger Black community of Illinois.
Born and raised in Chicago’s notorious Cabrini Green Housing Projects, Dunkin has always been one to go against the grain. “Even as a kid, we called him ‘GQ’, because Ken was always trying to achieve a higher standard. Whether it was how he dressed or the way he carried himself, he always knew we could do better,” recounts childhood friend and fellow Phi Beta Sigma brother Cyril Nichols. Dunkin went on to graduate from Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia and received his Masters from the University of Chicago. Dunkin ran the Robert Taylor Boys and Girls Club, before being elected to the Illinois House of Representatives in 2002.
While in Springfield, Dunkin established a reputation as a legislator who was willing to buck Madigan to cut a better deal for the constituents of his district. Dunkin even aligned himself with former Governor Rod Blagojevich when it made the most sense for his constituents. Because of his alliance with Blagojevich, Dunkin faced numerous Madigan backed challengers early in his career, soundly defeating all challengers. During the last remap, Madigan went as far as to map Dunkin out of his home base, but being the consummate campaigner, Dunkin adapted and was re-elected with little fuss.
In 2009, when Madigan wanted to put his full power on display against his than political mortal enemy Governor Rod Blagojevich, “family commitments and travel schedule” kept Dunkin from being present to vote on the impeachment. Dunkin’s refusal to take part in the process was symbolic of Dunkin’s unwillingness to kick Blagojevich, who was wildly popular in the Black community in spite of his legal issues, while he was down.
Since the House voted 114-1 to impeach Blagojevich, Dunkin’s absence was easily missed, but when Senate Bill 1229 failed, and Madigan said “If Mr. Dunkin were here we would have had 71 votes” because of those same “family commitments and travel schedule,” it sent a ripple through Springfield. When Dunkin was quoted to ABC 7 reporter Charles Thomas as saying, “There was not enough in the bill for Black people!” that ripple became a shock wave.
Dunkin sent a shockwave through Springfield, because for the first time, he dared to interject the interests of the Black community into the political death match between Republican Governor Bruce Rauner and Democrats led by Speaker Madigan. Because the Governor has veto power, the Senate has a bullet proof super majority, and the House has a super majority, the state budget impasse has reached gridlock. Dunkin’s break from Madigan over Black issues could become the game changer for either side, up to this point, only Rauner has been even willing to discuss the needs of the Black community specifically.
Springfield Power Dynamics
In the Illinois Senate, President John Cullerton listens closely to the advice and counsel of Assistant Majority Leader and Illinois Legislative Black Caucus Chairman Senator Kimberly A. Lightford. Additionally, the Senate Black Caucus has taken the lead in identifying areas of compromise, but are leery to trust Rauner, who they say has yet to back up his campaign promises. “We haven’t seen the business he was supposed to bring.” Lightford said, but she did indicate that there was room for compromise. “I can see some term limits if you think some people have been there too long and have a monopoly (on state government)” she continued in a veiled reference to the 40 year Speaker of the House.
In the Illinois House the situation is a bit different. While the Illinois Speaker of the House is widely regarded as the most powerful man in Illinois, his position of strength relies on his ability to control his members. In this situation, Madigan must be able to corral all 71 of his members to be able to override Rauner’s ability to veto, and any defection leaves Speaker Madigan in the weakest negotiating position of the three major players. Always the master strategist, in the past Madigan has typically been able to convince at least one Republican to vote with Democrats, but since Rauner entered the scene, he has commanded the loyalty of the House Republicans, led by Minority Leader Jim Durkin.
While Cullerton has the strongest Democratic position, he and his Senate colleagues have taken a backseat to the “Madigan v. Rauner Show.” Equally in the background, is the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus, who until this point has also been overshadowed, even though they control the second largest Caucus in Springfield. Rauner has openly courted their support, and has been rumored to have offered the Black Caucus a menu of social service and economic concessions tailored to the Black community. The Black Caucus so far has rejected Rauner’s overtures because of his stance on basic “Democratic core values.”
Meanwhile, Madigan has yet to even mention the issues that concern the Black community, with many suggesting that he is at the root of Blacks being excluded from equal participation in state contracts and the political decision making process. As a matter of fact, during Madigan’s 40-year tenure as Speaker, he has never had a Black person on his Senior Leadership Team. He has been able to count on the unquestioned support of the Black Caucus members, without ever having to confront his own record in the Black community… until Ken Dunkin missed that vote and audaciously mentioned, “Black People!”
Senate Bill 1229
When Black State Representative Ken Dunkin missed the vote on Senate Bill 1229, he took on two of the most powerful forces in Springfield, Speaker Madigan and organized labor. The bill, which would have strengthened state employee labor union AFSCME’s negotiating power and proved Mike Madigan as the biggest boss in Springfield failed by 3 votes, and Madigan blamed it singularly on Dunkin’s absence, he inadvertently gave the Black community their strongest negotiating tool in almost two generations.
Traditionally, state workers negotiate their contract with the Governor and the Executive Branch not the Legislative Branch, but because of the extreme anti-union position Bruce Rauner has taken against unions, AFSCME sought the assistance of the General Assembly to gain additional leverage. Because AFSCME needed to involve the Legislative Branch in the negotiations because things are not going so well, Dunkin saw it as the perfect opportunity for Black legislators to leverage concessions from the trade union that represents state workers including downstate prison guards.
Dunkin admits he voted for the bill initially, but after Rauner vetoed the bill and he had more opportunity to ask questions, AFSCME representatives told him that they “don’t typically share that information.” Dunkin admits he was incredulous at the fact that the union would not provide the information he requested, but still demanded his vote and unquestioned support. Dunkin knowing that he had previous commitments said “he informed House leadership that he would be unavailable” the following week. House leadership scheduled the vote anyway, and added SB 570 to restore childcare subsidy levels, on the same day with the hopes of guaranteeing Black lawmakers would be present for the vote.
When Dunkin followed through with family plans and travel schedule as he had previously communicated, the Speaker called SB 1229 in his absence. When the bill failed by 3 votes, Dunkin alone was vilified by the leader of the Democratic Caucus for the bill’s failure. Then knowing that he did not have the votes to pass the childcare bill, SB 570, the Speaker called it and it failed by one vote. Insiders speculated that Madigan called the bill knowing it would fail, so that it could be used against Dunkin in future campaigns. It is common practice in Springfield to leverage Black social service needs to secure votes on issues important to him. While SB 570 failed, Rep. Jehan Gordon made a motion to reconsider, which allowed SB 570 to be called again, a fact that has been lost in all of the rhetoric.
While the Speaker and AFSCME continue to attack Dunkin, for being “disloyal,” they fail to mention that 40% of AFSCME’s downstate membership voted for Governor Rauner in the past election. They also fail to mention that they spent the better part of two years attacking Democratic governor Pat Quinn. They also fail to mention that their leadership threatened to “punish” Dunkin for not supporting their bill.
In the Black community, the narrative has been all about the failure of SB 570, but the real battle was SB 1229, because it would have given Madigan and AFSCME the upper hand in their negotiations with Rauner. When Dunkin made the declaration, “I don’t work for Mike Madigan,” he dramatically shifted the power of the supermajority out of the hands of the all-powerful Madigan into the hands of a Black man. It’s a position that Blacks have not been in very often, and are very uncomfortable with.
While most Illinois Legislative Black Caucus members have remained silent, it is clear from their response that they are not happy with Dunkin. They have refused to speak out publicly against the former Chairman of the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus, but behind the scenes many are calling for the Speaker to “punish” Dunkin, but that would leave the Speaker in a precarious position.
While the House Democrats have a supermajority, there is no room for error. If they lose one vote, the Governor’s vetoes stick, making the supermajority worthless unless they can increase it. As we saw this week after Dunkin’s no show, the power dynamic shifts pretty fast in Springfield if anyone, particularly anyone Black leaves the proverbial “plantation,” a notion thought unthinkable until Dunkin rebelled against Madigan publicly last week.
That leaves the Speaker with a whole lot to think about, and based on his record in the Black community, that is not something he’s had to do for 40 years.