Illinois Senate President John Cullerton to retire after decade as Dem leader

The Chicago Democrat told the Senate Democratic caucus on Thursday that he plans to retire next year.

SHARE Illinois Senate President John Cullerton to retire after decade as Dem leader
Illinois Senate President John Cullerton

Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times file photo

Illinois Senate President John Cullerton on Thursday told his Democratic colleagues that he plans to retire in January.

Senate Democrats said Cullerton, 71, made the bombshell announcement during a Senate Democratic caucus on Thursday, the final day of the veto session.

Cullerton and his wife had discussed plans for his retirement for the last several years, his office said.

In a statement, Cullerton said he “can humbly brag that we have made great strides” while he was president, and worked with Republicans to pass two capital bills, marriage equality, abolishing the death penalty and pension, school funding and immigration reform.

”During a time when our efforts were challenged on many fronts, we found ways to reach across the aisle, and through compromise we worked together to get our job done,” he said. 

The decision, which came as a surprise to many, comes as three Senate Democrats are embroiled in federal investigations — and the Chicago Democrat has come under fire for his handling of those investigations. Cullerton in August declined to say whether federal prosecutors have contacted him, when asked by the Sun-Times. But Cullerton spokesman John Patterson said Cullerton is not under federal investigation.

Cullerton began his legislative career in 1978 in the Illinois House. He has served as the Senate President since 2009.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker on Thursday called Cullerton a “passionate advocate for improving Illinois — whether it was his focus on ending the scourge of youth smoking, dedication to fully funding education or efforts to advance critically needed infrastructure throughout the state.”

Steve Brown, spokesman for Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan, said the speaker on Thursday congratulated the Senate President “for an extraordinary career and a great working partnership they’ve had over a long, long time.”

Senate Republican Leader Bill Brady, R-Bloomington, said Cullerton led the Senate “with honor and distinction.” He said he has seen firsthand “the integrity, honesty, and humor that he brought to the responsibilities his office entailed.”

In the midst of a painful budget impasse, Cullerton in 2017 said he would seek re-election because he wanted “to serve under a Democratic governor again.

“I was always planning on being here for a little while,” he told reporters in April 2017. “There’s a lot of work to do between now and then. I want to serve under a Democratic governor again.”

Cullerton and former Illinois Senate Republican Leader Christine Radogno were credited for their bipartisan efforts to piece together a “grand bargain” package that helped begin the path to ending the impasse.

When Cullerton became Senate President, he was already a prolific legislative author. Laws bearing his imprint include a smoking ban in public places and mandates that motorists buckle up and place kids in child-safety seats. In his retirement statement, Cullerton counted two capital bills, marriage equality, abolishing the death penalty, school funding reform, pension reform and immigration reform as some of his largest accomplishments. Cullerton also oversaw the impeachment trial of former Gov. Rod Blagojevich, which ultimately led to his removal.

The Cullertons have been synonymous with Chicago politics since virtually the city’s inception. A city street bears the family name. Edward, the senator’s great-great-grandfather, was one of Chicago’s original settlers.

A Roman Catholic, John Cullerton entered state politics in 1978, when he won a seat in the Illinois House. He did not take long to run afoul of then state Sen. Richard M. Daley, the son of late Mayor Richard J. Daley.

Cullerton liked drawing laughs with his comedic impersonations. During a 1979 event, he imitated the elder Daley — which later led to a confrontation with Richard M. Daley

”He called me over and said he’d heard about these impersonations, and he didn’t take it as a compliment. I said I wouldn’t do it anymore,” Cullerton said after the younger Daley became mayor. “I don’t think the mayor’s still holding that grudge.”

Cullerton stayed in the House until 1991, when he was appointed to fill the vacant Senate seat of Dawn Clark Netsch, who was elected state comptroller. 

In 1994, Cullerton lost a bid to unseat former U.S. Rep. Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.). In that three-way campaign, Cullerton mailed thousands of spent bullet casings to North Side residents to dramatize his gun-control credentials.

Cullerton is a partner with the Loop law firm, Thompson Coburn. He is also a registered lobbyist with the city of Chicago, a topic brought up during a House debate on ethics on Thursday.

Cullerton said he disclosed potential conflicts before voting in the General Assembly and didn’t intend to disassociate himself from the firm when he became Senate President in 2009.

“I don’t want to stop being a lawyer,” he said.

The Latest
Francis Martinez, 18, of Des Plaines, and Wolfgang Gustaveson, 19, of Park Ridge, were killed when their truck collided with another truck, Carbondale police said.
The fire is under investigation, but the 131-year-old home’s survival could rest with the results of a structural report now being prepared by city building inspectors.
The Rev. Robert Dowd will take over July 1. He succeeds the Rev. John Jenkins, who led the university for 19 years.
Moog had served as CEO since 2020, overseeing the merger of the Chicago Sun-Times and WBEZ, creating the largest local nonprofit news organization in the country.
Mohammed K. Al Hijoj, 39, was on the job carrying four passengers when he was shot in the 1700 block of North Lotus Street on Sunday, officials said. The passengers fled.