Cook County Jail Credit: Santiago Covarrubias/Sun-Times

In the statehouse, Democratic and Republican state representatives sit on opposite sides of a narrow aisle, but they might as well be on different sides of an ocean as far as their worldviews go.

The latest evidence is a contentious debate that occurred last month over the voting rights of pretrial detainees—folks who have been arrested and jailed but are awaiting trial so are not technically guilty of a crime.

On one side of the debate were Democrats, all of them black. On the other side were Republicans, all of them white.

The issue was HB 4469, sponsored by state rep Juliana Stratton, a bill intended to give pretrial detainees the right to vote while they’re in jail. Right now, they aren’t allowed to cast ballots in most cities and towns across the state.

And, yes, that’s the same Juliana Stratton who’s J.B. Pritzker’s lieutenant governor running mate in November’s election.

The debate began with Stratton explaining that some counties already allow pretrial detainees—who haven’t been convicted of anything—to vote. Her bill’s intended to make the policy uniform throughout the state.

State rep Peter Breen, a Republican from Lombard, rose to say that “in our rush to show concern for everyone who is incarcerated . . . we appear to have lost concern for the people who have been victimized to put them into jail.”

Stratton pointed out—again—that these are pretrial detainees, so they’re not necessarily guilty of anything other than not having enough money to post bond. Nothing prevents those who are able to afford bond from voting once they are out.

Juliana StrattonCredit: Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Which prompted Jim Durkin, Governor Rauner’s floor leader, to bemoan the “imbalance between victims of the crimes and those who perpetrate the crimes.”

That inspired state rep Mary Flowers, from Englewood, to try to explain, one more time, that pretrial detainees are not necessarily perpetrators of any crime.

She spoke especially slowly, because, obviously, this is a tough concept for Republicans to comprehend.

State rep C.D. Davidsmeyer, from downstate Jacksonville, changed the subject to ask: “Why does the city of Chicago get to make their own rules?”

Not sure what he was getting at, other than reassuring his constituents that that he’s against anything that anybody from Chicago is for.

Stratton explained that Chicago is a city, located in a county called Cook.
And that Cook County is in fact covered by the bill.

To which Davidsmeyer said: “Looks to me like there’s a different standard. I urge a no vote.”

Stubborn fella, that C.D. Davidsmeyer.

Christian Mitchell, Democrat from Bronzeville, accused the Republicans of “nativist dogwhistling”—that is, suggesting something without really coming out and saying it.

Making that point more specifically, Jehan Gordon-Booth, a Democrat from Peoria, noted that “unless [it’s] the Second Amendment, all the rest of [constitutional rights] are negotiable when it comes to the rights of people who don’t look like you.”

Then she got a little personal: “I stand as a victim of gun violence.”  (Gordon-Booth’s 22-year-old stepson, Derrick Booth Jr., was murdered in 2014 by a man with a handgun.)

“My family received a call that no one wants to ever receive—ever. So please don’t play that tough-on-crime feeling anymore. ‘Cause it doesn’t work anymore.”

Jim DurkinCredit: Rich Hein/Sun-Times

In other words, it’s possible to respect and protect the rights of crime victims and still believe in the fundamental precepts of the Constitution.

“We’re going to stand against that kind of language,” she continued. “It reeks of racism.”

That brought groaning from the Republican aisle. As though they were shocked that anyone could accuse Donald Trump Republicans of having a racial bias.

“You may be tired of hearing it,” Gordon-Booth responded. “But I’m tired of experiencing it.”

Margo McDermed, a southwest-suburban Republican, then spoke. “It’s always a one-way street. We have bills. We have concerns. I’m tired of giving away my support for social justice reform bills for free. I’m over it, y’all.”

In 2017, McDermed introduced a bill that would have prohibited state legislators from serving as the chairman of their parties. It was clearly aimed at house speaker Michael Madigan, the only legislator who chairs a state political party. It died in the House Rules Committee, as do most bills that Madigan opposes.

Closing the debate was Litesa Wallace, Democrat from Rockford: “We’re not in preschool anymore—we are all adults. We should work as hard as possibly to move our legislation.”

In other words, if you don’t want to vote for Stratton’s bill, don’t vote for it. But you shouldn’t abandon your support for social justice just because Madigan didn’t let your anti-Madigan bill out of committee.

In the aftermath, I’m left with several thoughts.

One, you’d think Republicans obsessed with President “witch hunt” Trump’s due process rights would appreciate the concept of a constitutionally protected presumption of innocence.

Two, did I tell you that state rep Jim Durkin is a TIF lawyer? I realize this has nothing to do with this debate. But I mention it in case anyone still believes the so-called Rauner revolution has anything to do with reform.

Finally, Representative Wallace makes an excellent point. Man, these statehouse Republicans are soft. They wouldn’t last one minute in Mayor Rahm’s City Council, where common-sense legislation proposed by independents is routinely killed in the rules committee.

Eventually, Stratton’s bill passed—winning three Republican votes. I’d name those Republicans, but I worry Durkin might try to banish them from the party.

The bill moves to the senate, where it will probably pass. My guess is Rauner—always eager to look tough on crime—will veto it.

And so the great debate will continue.