The Southtown Star

Even conservative Democrat facing voter frustration

Thursday, September 23, 2010

If I were Democratic state Rep. Kevin McCarthy - a veteran lawmaker in a swing, Orland Park-based district - I might be a little nervous. Perhaps it's time to get comfy with the "R" word, and I don't mean "Republican."

Not only is anti-incumbent sentiment dripping from the eaves, Democrats in particular face a rocky climb toward November. There's no doubt a handful will be sent into "retirement."

The state under their reign is broke. Unemployment is high. And many of the systemic problems that the southwest suburbs faced when McCarthy first ran for office in 1996 remain unresolved, such as school funding inequities and unfunded pension liabilities.

Voter frustration is palpable, as evidenced by the emergence of yet another Tea Party group. Established this summer, the Tinley-Orland-Palos Tea Party already is drawing crowds of 75 to 100 people at monthly meetings - meetings that begin with a prayer and include patriotic sing-alongs.

"We are going to hold (incumbents') feet to the fire," said organizer Jim Fuentes, a Tinley Park business owner. "You better be concerned about fiscal responsibility. People in office keep ratcheting up the bills. It's like a credit card that never ends."

McCarthy remains one of the Democratic caucus' more conservative members, although he voted himself a pay raise two years ago and supported Gov. Pat Quinn's failed borrowing plan in May.

A former teacher, McCarthy sponsored the long-overdue pension bill that raised retirement ages for new state workers and teachers. He plans to introduce legislation next year targeting police and firefighter pensions.

Unlike most members of his caucus, McCarthy has voted against state budgets that included overly rosy revenue projections.

And he has never issued a college tuition waiver as part of the controversial, clout-driven program that prompted the resignation of University of Illinois President B. Joseph White.

But even McCarthy, respected by fiscal watchdogs, faces a tough re-election in this climate. It's more labor-intensive for McCarthy to explain and defend his voting record than for his opponent, Jeffrey Junkas, to stick to this simple message:

"He's part of the problem in Springfield for the past 13 years," Junkas, of Tinley Park, says of McCarthy. "If you want more debt, more borrowing and more machine politics, vote for Kevin."

The pension bill represented little more than a political move to boost McCarthy's image among fiscal conservatives, according to Junkas.

"It solves a problem 40 years down the road," he said. "So it didn't really solve anything. Kevin is still going to collect his very generous pension."

Junkas, who vows to take a 10 percent salary reduction if elected, points to several McCarthy votes that will sting him - including the 2008 pay hike. Under the current system, lawmakers can vote against pay increases but still receive them as part of a purposely convoluted process. McCarthy thought that was disingenuous, so he voted in favor of the pay increase.

"If you look at the issue of pay raises, I also voted to change the system so we have a straight up-or-down vote," McCarthy said. "I'm going to be up front. You shouldn't hide behind legislative maneuvers."

While knocking on doors, McCarthy said voters in his district understand that the state's problems are a result of the economy.

"They also understand this is not a time for beginners," McCarthy said. "They understand I'm independent, and I'm willing to take on tough issues like pensions and the telecommunications rewrite."

Junkas disputes McCarthy's independence.

"He votes with (Speaker) Michael Madigan 98 percent of the time," Junkas said. "He's out there saying he's more Republican than me. Here's a guy who is going to collect two pensions when he retires."

Ah, the "R" word. Retire.

Will voters of the 37th District send McCarthy into retirement? He says, "No."

"This is an independent district," he said. "People split tickets and look at individual races, and I have faith they will do the right thing Nov. 2."