Former state Sen. Bill Morris of Waukegan has some advice for the 19 House Democrats who want to overthrow Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan.
“They have to come up with a better name,” said Morris, a member of the so-called Crazy Eight group of independent-minded Democrats who sparked a six-week battle in 1977 for the Illinois Senate presidency.
Morris was mostly joking. “The 19,” as the group is currently known, has bigger challenges than what to call itself, not least of which is how to become 60 — the number needed to choose a speaker.
But a cohesive identity that captured the public imagination was no doubt an asset for the Crazy Eight during the protracted 1977 holdout that ended with Democrat Tom Hynes of Chicago being elected on the 186th ballot.
As House Democrats prepare for what is expected to be the state Legislature’s biggest leadership battle in decades, many are looking for lessons from the 1977 Senate stalemate and from a similar 93-ballot battle for House speaker in 1975 that gave the gavel to Democrat William Redmond of Bensenville.
I’m slightly better acquainted with the Senate presidency fight, having arrived in Springfield for the first time later that year.
It’s not a perfect comparison to the forthcoming speakership contest by any means.
Most important, the Senate presidency was open that year. Cecil Partee, the previous occupant, had retired. There was no longterm incumbent like Madigan being pried from the position.
On top of that, the 1977 fight wasn’t so much about who would occupy the top Senate spot as it was about the dissidents seeking concessions that would give them more power and open up the legislative process.
Hynes was the leading candidate from the start, backed by the then-still powerful Cook County Democratic Organization — The Machine, if you will.
The Crazy Eight’s candidate was Terry Bruce of Olney, who would go on to become a congressman.
The eight formed an alliance with the then smaller Black Caucus, which had a candidate of its own whose name you might recognize: Harold Washington.
This combined group of 13 had no real chance of electing someone. But, by sticking together, they could block Hynes from reaching the 30 votes he needed.
Holding out, which brought all other legislative action to a standstill, was not easy.
“It’s a lot more pressure than you’d think,” said Morris, now 75, who went on to be elected mayor of Waukegan just weeks after the 1977 leadership battle.
The pressure came from colleagues at first, then from Democratic-allied interest groups like labor unions. Morris remembers the autoworkers union and the steelworkers trying to twist his arm.
A big difference in those days, Morris said, is that it didn’t cost a lot to run for office. His first campaign cost $12,000 to $15,000, much of which he raised by hosting softball tournaments, he said. By comparison, the cost of a contested Senate seat today can start at $1 million.
What that meant is that members of the Crazy Eight were confident they didn’t need the party’s support to get re-elected, Morris said, while today’s legislators depend on leaders like Madigan to raise campaign money.
Unlike the loosely formed group of 19 who have publicly expressed opposition to Madigan, the Crazy Eight had been working closely together on policy matters for two years before the 1977 leadership battle. They called themselves the Democratic Study Group. In addition to supporting other members on legislation, they backed each other up with technical assistance on elections, Morris said.
The Crazy Eight nickname had been bestowed by reporters and was much loathed by the individual who probably became the group’s best-known member, future state Comptroller Dawn Clark Netsch. Morris, a former radio reporter, didn’t mind.
Originally embraced by the media as reformers, the dissident group came under fire for being “obstructionists” as the fight dragged on.
Newly elected Gov. James R. Thompson, tasked by the Constitution with presiding over the Senate until it picked a leader, was losing patience as well.
But the Crazy Eight stood firm.
“After the second week, it wasn’t that hard any more because then you dig in deeper,” said Morris, who now lives in Grayslake.
Eventually, Hynes settled with the Black Caucus, allowing its members to choose a member of leadership, and finally with the Crazy Eight through improved committee assignments and procedures.
“The 19 have to decide: Is it until the end, or can they be picked off for various and sundry issues?” Morris said.
For now, I understand their position to be: anybody but Madigan.
Some of their colleagues think they’re crazy.