When Illinois House Republican leader Jim Durkin was subjected to a rare challenge of a legislative leader in a primary five years ago, he summed up his job duties in three sentences.
“I’ve got to work on policy. I’ve got to raise money. But I’m also an unlicensed psychiatrist at times in Springfield,” the leader of the GOP minority in the House said en route to a big victory for his House seat.
On Tuesday, when the 102nd General Assembly is scheduled to come to a close, Durkin will retire after 24 years in the legislature — the last nine as House GOP leader, he said.
His psychiatric skills, he said, are no longer able to respond to an increasingly rightward Republican Party mindset, fostered by former President Donald Trump and his followers, that threatens to relegate the party to permanent minority status in the state.
“I’ll just say that operating without a license got even more challenging,” said Durkin, 61, of Western Springs, who considers himself as somewhere between a moderate and conservative Republican.
“The politics have changed. The party over the last at least six years has shifted,” he said. “The only way you can win in Illinois is that you’re going to have to just find the candidates that reflect the district. And we should not hold anyone to the 100% (party) purity test that some people in this party expect throughout the state.”
Shortly after the Nov. 8 election expanded the Democrats’ advantage in the House to a record 78 members compared to 40 Republicans, Durkin announced he would not seek another term as House GOP leader, and his decision to resign his seat had been expected. The Republican leader for the 103rd General Assembly will be state Rep. Tony McCombie of Savanna. Durkin’s successor representing the 82nd House district will be selected by local Republican township officials.
Durkin points the blame for the disastrous election results — particularly in the suburbs that were once a cornerstone of Illinois Republicanism — on a statewide GOP ticket led by gubernatorial candidate Darren Bailey, a state senator who leaned heavily on his evangelical Christianity in his campaign and who was endorsed by Trump. A new legislative map drawn by Democrats also was a factor.
“We had some great (GOP House) candidates in the suburbs and collar counties and they were all painted (by Democrats) with the same brush, as being Trump sympathizers from a party of intolerance and extremists,” he said. “The Trump factor and Jan. 6 is something that’s not going away anytime soon. And that obviously was in many people’s minds when they talked about their fear for democracy.”
Durkin said he thinks Republicans in Illinois will not be successful until the party distances itself from Trump and acknowledges both his role in the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol and his 2020 election defeat to Democratic President Joe Biden.
“I hope that at some point in the near future, and I think we’re getting there, that the party breaks its fever of Donald Trump and understands and learns from the past. Some people will never get there,” he said.
“So I would just say the sooner that the public realizes that he’s not value added to the Republican Party, we can start looking at what this party used to be about. A party that didn’t insist upon this purity test. A party that is a fiscally conservative first of all, certainly, but we can have a fair and respectful debate within the party on issues related to the Second Amendment, to life and these other social issues, that have been dragging us down in areas that we have to compete in — mainly the suburbs and the collar counties,” he said.
Durkin’s caucus was becoming increasingly split between remaining suburban moderates and downstate conservatives who have become a new center of Republicanism, representing the far-larger geographic area outside Chicago but an area with declining population.
A group of far-right Republican lawmakers known unofficially as the “Eastern Bloc,” of which Bailey was a member, chafed under policies expanding abortion and gay rights and also proposed legislation to make Chicago a separate state.
“I can’t run a candidate in the western suburbs who’s going to win who is mirroring what someone says campaigning on in the Deep South,” Durkin said. “I just don’t think we should be promoting the 51st state in the collars and the suburbs when it certainly plays well downstate.”
Durkin became friends with the late U.S. Sen. John McCain of Arizona, even serving as his Illinois director in the 2008 presidential campaign against home-state favorite Barack Obama.
Durkin said McCain “would have figured a way to avoid” the Republican “mess” that led to the U.S. House taking 15 ballots before electing Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California speaker, and also “would have ensured that on Jan. 6, maybe something different, maybe something could have been averted.”
“The John McCain I know would have gone outside of the Capitol and kicked the asses of the insurrectionists and Trump’s as well,” Durkin said. “He’s the statesman that this country needs.”
Durkin is one of eight sons in a family steeped in politics and law. He grew up in Westchester and attended Fenwick High School in Oak Park. After studying criminal justice at Illinois State University, Durkin received a law degree from John Marshall Law School and went to work for the Illinois attorney general’s office and later the Cook County state’s attorney’s office.
In 1995, local Republican leaders appointed Durkin to fill the House seat vacated by Tom Walsh, who was moving to the state Senate. Durkin opted not to seek reelection in 2002 and won a three-way primary to challenge Democratic U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin.
Durkin lost 60% to 38% to the well-known and well-funded incumbent, but the race stayed focused on policy rather than negativity and elevated Durkin’s stature. He and Durbin also developed a friendship.
Durkin returned to the House in 2006, filling the seat held by Republican state Rep. Eileen Lyons, who had resigned, and winning the general election. In 2013, he was elected to his first term as House Republican leader, succeeding Tom Cross of Oswego, who made an unsuccessful run for state treasurer.
In 2016, with the financial assistance of wealthy one-term Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner, the House GOP was able to end then-House Speaker Michael Madigan’s Democratic veto-proof supermajority, flipping four Democratic seats in contests that attacked Madigan’s longtime power. But two years later Democrats picked up seven seats as Rauner was defeated by billionaire Democrat J.B. Pritzker for governor, restoring the Democratic supermajority in the chamber.
Madigan has pleaded not guilty to federal corruption charges related to Commonwealth Edison’s acknowledged efforts to try to gain his favor through jobs and contracts for allies, with a subsequent indictment alleging AT&T did the same. The ComEd charges led to Madigan being ousted from his role as the nation’s longest-serving statehouse leader and he was replaced by Rep. Emanuel “Chris” Welch of Hillside two years ago.
At the inauguration of that General Assembly, Durkin delivered a stinging rebuke to Madigan’s leadership in response to Democratic praise for the former speaker’s tenure. While Durkin faced criticism over his remarks, he said, “That was not the place to thank Michael Madigan for his contributions to Illinois. How tone deaf can these Democrats be? I was not going to let those comments go unanswered.”
Years before he became leader, Durkin saw his status elevated by Madigan, who picked the Republican former prosecutor to chair a special committee to investigate prosecutorial misconduct amid disclosures of misconduct and wrongful convictions. The House approved the panel’s recommendations but the legislation that ensured failed in the Republican-controlled Senate, only to be largely adopted a few years later amid a number of Tribune reports of wrongful convictions in death penalty cases.
“That was the first time that I that I really took heat as a legislator,” Durkin said. “Many people who were involved in the criminal justice system were very upset with me, but I knew this was the right thing to do.”
Last year, he was awarded the “Defender of the Innocent” award by the Illinois Innocence Project through the University of Illinois-Springfield for his work on legislation to ban deception during the interrogation of a minor in a criminal investigation.
But Durkin has been a vehement opponent of the Democrat-backed criminal justice reform law known as the SAFE-T Act and its provision to eliminate cash bail. The law, which has been stayed pending Illinois Supreme Court review of its constitutionality, is “haphazard, reckless, sloppy and makes inoperable changes to the criminal justice system that will just add confusion to the judge, prosecution and also the defense.”
One of his last legislative votes was as the lone Republican to vote with Democrats to approve a ban on military-style firearms and large-capacity magazines. Durkin, who has long-backed various gun control initiatives, said his vote not only represented his district’s beliefs but was a reflection of his years as a prosecutor.
“I’ve had to go to the morgue, I’ve seen the pictures. I’ve talked to the families,” Durkin said of victims of gun violence. “If someone is not going to rethink their position after what happened on the Fourth of July in Highland Park, I just don’t know how anybody can ignore that. I didn’t and I refuse to.”
Durkin also served as the lead Republican in the House prosecution of the 2009 impeachment of former Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who was removed from office by a unanimous Senate vote and later imprisoned on federal corruption charges. His prison sentence was commuted by Trump.
“It was a defining moment for the state,” he said of the impeachment proceedings. “This was a moment where were able to exercise the Constitution and police state government and I felt that we accomplished our goal.”
Among his legislative victories was the enactment of tougher standards for cancer-causing ethylene oxide emissions of the sort that led to the closure of a Sterigenics sterilization plant in Willowbrook where population clusters of people with cancer had been found.
But he said his most significant action was to convince state Medicaid regulators to allow Medicaid coverage for continuous glucose monitors and lifting a monthly cap of 100 testing strips for blood sugar for people with Type 1 diabetes. One of his daughters has the condition.
“That to me, is, I would say, one of my best and proudest moments, which is not a press release type of issue,” Durkin said. “When you have the ability to serve in this position to get the attention of regulators and explain to them the problem and why it needs to be fixed, that justifies my 24 years that I served in the General Assembly.”