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In a Northwest Side game of musical chairs, you — the voter — don’t get to play

And why would the political insiders appoint to the state Senate or House somebody who already has a public job?

Rep. Michael McAuliffe, the only Chicago Republican serving in the Illinois House of Representatives, announced recently his resignation after 23 years in office. | Sun-Times Media

A game of political musical chairs now playing out in several state legislative districts on Chicago’s Northwest Side makes this an opportune time to question how vacancies for elective office are filled.

Should state law allow the job to be given to someone who already has a public job?

And who decides?

A state senate seat opened up on the Northwest Side this month when the incumbent Democrat, John Mulroe, was chosen by judges to fill a Cook County judicial opening. Among those reportedly interested in being appointed to Mulroe’s senate seat is state Rep. Rob Martwick.

If Martwick is chosen, then his state rep seat opens up. And a second Northwest Side state representative seat already opened up earlier this month when State Rep. Michael McAuliffe resigned, retiring after 23 years.

McAuliffe is Chicago’s lone Republican Representative, so his retirement has sparked a lot of talk, especially since Rosemont Mayor Brad Stephens has made it clear he’d like the gig. Stephens says he would continue to serve as Rosemont’s mayor, though, pulling in a whopping $260,000, even if he chosen to be the new state rep, a job with a base pay of $69,000.

Double dippers — elected officials and other public employees who collect two or more taxpayer-funded salaries — used to be more common in the Illinois General Assembly, with various mayors, township supervisors and other public employees all holding state office. Now if Stephens double dips, he would be joining state Sen. Steven Landek, who is also the mayor of Bridgeview.

Isn’t one public salary enough?

Granted, most mayoral jobs don’t pay the $260,000 Stephens gets in Rosemont, but plenty of us have argued over the years that double dipping should be banned because it creates a situation in which an office-holder serves two constituencies and may face conflicts of interest.

And what about the process for filling vacancies?

Perhaps it’s time to look at changing that. For the senate vacancy on the Northwest Side and the one, or potentially two, state rep vacancies, party committeemen — insiders — will choose the replacements, not voters. Then, those appointees will have the huge benefit of incumbency when they seek election in 2020, almost a year and a half from now.

Indeed, Bridgeport Mayor Landek initially was appointed to his state senate job in 2011 and won the election in 2012. The Illinois state Constitution states if a vacancy occurs “in a Senatorial office with more than 28 months remaining in the term, the appointed Senator shall serve until the next general election, at which time a Senator shall be elected to serve for the remainder of the term.

“If the vacancy is in a representative office or in any other senatorial office,” the state Constitution continues, “the appointment shall be for the remainder of the term. An appointee to fill a vacancy shall be a member of the same political party as the person he succeeds.”

Someone can serve for more than two years and four months without passing muster with voters?

This is just another way politicians in Illinois rig the game against the voters. Both major parties are guilty. The general understanding in Springfield seems to be that if you’re going to quit a job as a state senator or representative, you should do so early enough that your party can anoint your successor — not the voters. And, in fact, we have seen a spate of resignations and appointments recently.

State Sen. Robert Peters was appointed to replace Attorney General Kwame Raoul. Democrat State Rep. Celina Villanueva was appointed to replace state Rep. Silvana Tabares when she moved to an aldermanic job. State Rep. Jonathan Carroll was appointed to replace former State Rep. Elaine Nekritz. State Rep. Yehiel Kalish was appointed to succeed State Rep. Lou Lang. State Sen. Donald DeWitte was appointed to replace former GOP State Sen. Karen McConnaughay.

The list goes on and on. It happens in both parties and all over Illinois. I don’t mean to imply these appointees are bad at their jobs at all. In fact, some of them just helped shepherd through some of this past legislative session’s biggest proposals.

But why don’t voters get more of a say?

According to Ballotpedia, Illinois is one of just four states — along with Indiana, North Dakota and Colorado — in which party officials fill legislative vacancies. In seven other states, county boards fill those jobs. In 10 states, it’s the governor’s responsibility to make an appointment. And in three states, a hybrid system is used.

One state, Ohio, allows a vote by the legislative chamber to make appointments. But a full 25 states hold special elections when a vacancy occurs.

In Connecticut, the governor must call for a special election within 10 days of a vacancy occurring and the balloting must take place within the next 46 days. If a vacancy occurs with fewer than 125 days before the next general election, then the special election coincides with that general election.

It’s probably a safe bet that even in states that require special elections, party officials play a strong role in selecting candidates, but at least voters get a say.

It should be up to the voters, not political insiders, to choose one person who makes one salary and serves one district.

That’s how democracy ought to work.

Madeleine Doubek is executive director of CHANGE Illinois, a nonpartisan nonprofit that advocates for political and government reforms.

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