By Ted Kleine

The state legislature used to be a colorful place. Take the late representative A. Webber Borchers of Decatur. Borchers lived in a mansion overlooking the Sangamon River that was loaded with treasures he’d looted from Nazi Germany in the last year of World War II–flags, knives, and suits of armor. An archconservative, he conducted a personal investigation of outdoor rock festivals and spoke out against the Equal Rights Amendment on grounds that women’s “funny-shaped hips” made them unfit for combat.

Borchers owed his political career to cumulative voting, a quirky method of electing legislators that some politicians and activists are now trying to revive. Until 1982, every legislative district sent a senator and three representatives to Springfield. Each voter had three votes to spread among three candidates, divide between two, or heap on one. If you “plunked” or “bulleted” for a single candidate, he got all three votes. Borchers won year after year because his devoted corps of right-wing fans gave him all three of their votes.

“That’s the way he got elected, because everybody would ‘plunk,’ give him all three votes,” said newsman Ron Ingram, who covered Borchers for Decatur’s Herald & Review. “I don’t think he ever would have gotten elected if he’d had to run any other way.”

In 1980, political agitator Pat Quinn collected over 477,000 signatures to put his “Cutback Amendment” on the ballot. It proposed to replace the 177-member house with 118 representatives elected from single-member districts. The assembly had just given itself a big pay increase, so voters loved the idea of firing 59 legislators at one stroke. The amendment passed by a two-thirds majority. The “Big House,” as the old legislature was nicknamed, was dead. So was cumulative voting.

Two years later, Borchers ran for the first time under the new rules. He lost every precinct to his Democratic opponent.

Representative Sara Feigenholtz doesn’t have much in common with A. Webber Borchers, but she’s trying to bring back the system that made him possible. Feigenholtz, a Chicago Democrat, is sponsoring a constitutional amendment that would divide Illinois into 39 districts, which would each elect three representatives, chosen by cumulative voting.

“I just think the whole cutback amendment was a sham,” Feigenholtz said. “It was a populist political ploy on the part of the author that accomplished just the opposite of what it was supposed to. It eliminated the independent voice from the legislature.”

Under the old system, each party ran only two candidates per district, leaving room for Republicans to get elected in the city and Democrats to win in the suburbs. In Chicago, Republican Susan Catania represented a south-side district that included the Robert Taylor Homes.

“Certainly having people from Chicago in the Republican conference meant that people from the collar counties and downstate got to hear our concerns,” said Catania, who lost her seat after the Cutback Amendment was passed. “It gave us a chance to explain the Chicago point of view, so there was less hostility on the floor.”

Catania often bucked her party leadership, voting for gun control, for abortion, for the ERA, but it was impossible for the bosses to punish her because there was no Republican organization on the south side.

“There just wouldn’t have been anything they could do to find a strong Republican leader to defeat me,” she said. Nor could the Democrats have beaten a maverick from Du Page County.

With members serving in Springfield, the Chicago Republican Party wasn’t the joke it is now. Catania used her office to corral votes for Senator Charles Percy and to rally her constituents against Democratic state’s attorney Edward Hanrahan, who was hated by blacks for his role in the killing of Black Panthers Fred Hampton and Mark Clark. The machine bosses who controlled the Taylor Homes had never told their constituents about ticket splitting, so Catania had to give lessons.

“People said, ‘Your vote doesn’t count unless you vote the straight Democratic ticket,'” Catania recalled.

Now almost all Republicans come from the suburbs and farm counties, and almost all Democrats come from Chicago and southern Illinois. The legislature is polarized along regional lines, and house speaker Michael Madigan and minority leader Lee Daniels ride herd over their members, because each controls the party machine in his quarter of the state.

“To some extent, it’s not a house of representatives–it’s the house of Madigan and Daniels,” Catania said. “They can defeat rebels.”

Feigenholtz was elected to the legislature in 1994, the year the Republicans won a majority. Lee Daniels became speaker, and he treated her and all other Democrats as “invisible,” she said, rarely allowing their bills to come to the floor. She felt powerless to help her north-side district. But a Republican could have done something.

“If I had a [Republican] colleague sitting next to me who lives at 3400 N. Lake Shore Drive, I could have said, ‘We have to get this bill out. It’s important for the schools. It’s important for the aldermen,'” Feigenholtz argued.

(Making sure every part of the state was represented by Republicans and Democrats was the original intent of the Big House. In 1870, when Illinois drafted its second constitution, the legislature was bitterly divided between southern Democrats and northern Republicans, who followed the Civil War principle of “vote the way you shot.” Chicago Tribune publisher Joseph Medill proposed cumulative voting so “the strong men of a party throughout the state may be elected, although living in districts where their party is in a minority.”)

Pat Quinn, father of the Cutback Amendment, doesn’t agree that the system was more democratic in the old days. For one thing, he says, Republicans in Democratic districts often rode in with the support of under 10 percent of the voters. The west side of Chicago produced legislators with names like Capuzi and Margalus. As a result, blacks were underrepresented. Hispanics weren’t represented at all. If the old system were revived, it undoubtedly would violate the Voting Rights Act, Quinn said.

“The first thing that people should be aware of if they restore [cumulative voting] is that it was very discriminatory against racial minorities,” he said. “No Hispanic was ever elected under the old system. African-American representatives got a much higher proportion of the seats under the new system. Smaller, single-member districts tend to best reflect the voting population.”

Some Chicago “Republicans” were actually Democrats masquerading on the other side of the ballot. That’s how Richard J. Daley won his first elective office. In 1936, David Shanahan, the Republican representative from Bridgeport, died two weeks before election day. It was too late to print new ballots, so Democrats wrote in Daley’s name on the Republican line. Once he got to Springfield, Daley fessed up and sat on the Democratic side. But not everyone was so honest, and real Republicans were cheated out of seats.

Champions of the Big House say it produced thoughtful, independent legislators, such as Republican Art Telscer of Chicago, who fought for Asians and Hispanics, and Democrat John Matijevich of North Chicago, a voice for blue-collar workers in his North Shore district. Former senator Paul Simon got into the General Assembly without the support of his local machine by persuading voters to “plunk” for him. But Quinn points out that the Big House was once led by the spectacularly corrupt Paul Powell, whose lust for graft was known from coast to coast. When John F. Kennedy came to Illinois to campaign for president, he remarked of Powell, “He’s a crook, isn’t he?”

The last speaker of the Big House was George Ryan, who was so fond of the system that he tried to derail Quinn’s cutback campaign by passing a bill requiring all petition signatures to be from residents of the same county as the circulator. (The Illinois Supreme Court ordered the amendment back onto the ballot.) Ryan still thinks cumulative voting is the best way to elect a legislature, spokesman Dave Urbanek said.

“The governor just believes that since three-member districts were done away with, the people have lost a measure of representation,” Urbanek said. “Under the old system, more issues were judged by their merit, rather than on partisan politics.”

However, restoring the Big House would be a “hard row to hoe,” Urbanek said.

That’s because no one benefits more from the Cutback Amendment than Michael Madigan, who can easily prevent Illinois voters from ever seeing Feigenholtz’s amendment. She would like it to appear on the November 2000 ballot, but to get there it must first be approved by 60 percent of the house–which Madigan dominates–and the senate.

“He’s the big winner under the winner-take-all system,” said Dan Johnson-Weinberger of the Midwest Democracy Center, a think tank whose “Drive to Revive” helped bring cumulative voting to Feigenholtz’s attention. “So is Lee Daniels. Their grip on power will be significantly loosened.” The Midwest Democracy Center has started a petition drive to collect the 250,000 signatures needed to put cumulative voting on next year’s ballot. But Johnson-Weinberger admits, “Our little group is incapable of getting the quarter million” and would need help from other organizations. Meanwhile, he’s rooting for Feigenholtz’s bill.

The newsletter “Capitol Fax” reported in July that Madigan “opposes reviving three-member districts. Madigan complained that Democrats in the same Dem-majority district would often battle each other, leading to the election of two Republicans instead of two D’s.”

Feigenholtz has to be careful what she says about Madigan. But she notes that “he has cool heels” about her bill, which is now in front of the House Executive Committee, a body “made up of very close friends of the speaker.”

If Feigenholtz’s proposal ever becomes law, it would cost a few Chicago Democrats their jobs, as the city’s Springfield delegation would go from almost all Democratic to one-third Republican. If one of those jobs is hers, she says, she won’t mind.

“It’s not really about me, is it?” she said. Then she added, “That’d be a nice little legacy, wouldn’t it?”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Robert Drea.