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Suburbs key battleground for control of Illinois Senate

(MCT) — Retaking control of the Illinois Senate from the Democrats looks like quite the uphill climb for Republicans next month.

Not only is home-state President Barack Obama providing a potential boost at the top of the ticket, but Democrats drew the new district boundaries to preserve their political power.

The magic number to run the Senate is 30. Democrats now hold a 35-24 edge. That means Republicans need a net gain of six seats to dump Chicago Democrat John Cullerton from the Senate president's chair. For their part, Democrats need to pick up only one seat to return to a veto-proof majority that would further consolidate the party's power.

While all 59 state Senate seats are on the ballot, only about a dozen districts are considered competitive. Many of them already have surpassed $1 million in campaign spending, a large amount for a contest that far down the ballot.

Five of the 12 top contests are in the suburbs, where candidates are highlighting pressing financial issues facing state government and differences on social issues: the 67 percent hike in the personal income tax rate, public worker pension reform, concealed weapons, education and abortion rights.

23rd District

Republican Sen. Carole Pankau of Itasca is a 20-year lawmaker seeking re-election against Democratic challenger Tom Cullerton, Villa Park's president and a distant cousin of the Democratic Senate president.

Pankau, 65, doubts Tom Cullerton would be independent: "We have one Cullerton in the Senate right now. I don't think we need another." Responds Cullerton: "Prove to me why she needs to stay."

A win by Cullerton, 43, would put a Democratic senator in Republican-rich DuPage County. A Hostess truck driver who sells and delivers Twinkies and cupcakes by day, Cullerton is pushing a theme that he's gotten things done as village president: consolidated supervisory jobs, reopened a key railroad crossing, paid bills on time and persuaded a motorcycle dealer to stay in town.

Pankau calls for more aggressive job creation to stem an exodus of families and firms from Illinois. She voted against the 2011 income tax increases and wants them off the books now. Cullerton said he would keep the temporary income taxes in place and let them partly expire on schedule in 2015.

Both oppose a Democratic proposal advocated by Senate President Cullerton to gradually shift pension costs for suburban and Downstate teachers from the state treasury to local school districts. The candidates fear it would sharply increase property taxes.

Pankau and her opponent each back forms of allowing a person to carry a concealed weapon — the opposite position of the Senate president. Tom Cullerton supports abortion rights; Pankau opposes abortion rights but makes exceptions for cases of rape, incest and when the mother's life is at stake.

Pankau voted for pension legislation that would give legislators and rank-and-file state workers a choice between keeping compounded cost-of-living pension increases or their health care in retirement. Cullerton said he would have supported it and plans to take no legislative pension. Pankau said she plans to keep her pension and touted her pension vote as "real reform."

28th District

Democratic Sen. Dan Kotowski and Republican challenger Jim O'Donnell both live in Park Ridge, but their politics are practically polar opposites.

On social and safety issues, for example, Kotowski supports abortion rights. O'Donnell opposes abortion except in cases of rape, incest and when the mother's life is at risk. Kotowski, once an anti-gun lobbyist, opposes allowing concealed weapons in Illinois. O'Donnell supports concealed weapons with proper training and police support.

Kotowski, 45, is an appropriations chairman who voted twice for an income tax hike in Illinois, including the 2011 version that became law.

O'Donnell, 61, a chief financial officer for a Hanover Park manufacturer, said the tax hike is hurting business and he wants it eliminated now.

Kotowski touts a law he sponsored and dubbed "budgeting for results" as a way to ensure each state program is worth its cost. O'Donnell dismisses the law as "just a bunch of words" in a state beset by financial challenges.

On pensions, O'Donnell said he would refuse to take one and called for broad-based reforms.

Kotowski said he would eliminate legislative pensions altogether, including his own, if that would help right the state's financial ship. The Democrat voted for the pension changes the Senate passed in May. The bill is pending in the Democratic-run House.

Kotowski also highlights ethics laws he pushed, including one that requires forfeiting campaign funds and profits from corrupt activities. Others he backed rein in spending by cutting lawmakers' daily expenses and requiring them to take 12 days a year without pay.

The contest also has been the priciest suburban Senate race, with the two campaigns raising a combined $1.3 million. Kotowski has raised nearly $430,000 since July 1 and O'Donnell has raised nearly $170,000 since then, according to the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform.

29th District

This district was supposed to be an easy win for Democrats when the party drew it up. But it became a battleground when Democratic Sen. Susan Garrett of Lake Forest decided to not seek re-election.

Pitted against each other are Democrat Julie Morrison, 55, the longtime West Deerfield Township supervisor, and Republican Arie Friedman, 46, a Highland Park pediatrician.

Morrison said she has been elected four times to her current post and held accountable by taxpayers. Coming from an area with New Trier and other premier public high schools, Morrison said she wants to steer more dollars into the classroom instead of the bureaucracy.

While Morrison supports letting the income-tax increase decline beginning in 2015, Friedman wants a repeal. Both oppose a proposal for the state to shift costs of suburban and Downstate teacher pensions onto local school districts, saying property taxes would go up.

Friedman supports allowing concealed weapons, providing it is carefully written to ensure proper training and has the support of police. Morrison is opposed: "No compromise."

Both candidates favor abortion rights, but Friedman said he does not support having the state-federal Medicaid program pay for abortions.

Friedman said he once piloted Navy helicopters, served in the Navy Reserve until 2005 and was deployed in Desert Storm.

31st District

Republicans thought they had a clear shot at keeping this north suburban seat, but then sitting Sen. Suzi Schmidt told a police dispatcher to ignore her husband's call for help during a marital spat.

Schmidt bowed out under pressure, and it's now an open seat. Democrat Melinda Bush, 56, of Grayslake is taking on Republican Joe Neal, 44, of Wadsworth, the son of former Lake County GOP chairman Bob Neal.

Bush is a Lake County Board member and a former Grayslake village trustee. She said public pensions for retired state workers should not be changed because it's "not their fault" the retirement funds are in dire straits. Bush suggested one way to help pay down the state's more than $80 billion pension debt is to place an income tax on retirees who make more than $150,000 and send proceeds to the pension system. Retirees do not pay Illinois income taxes now.

Neal said current retirees should be minimally impacted, if at all, by pension reforms. He said he would be open to Bush's ideas as well as other options, such as raising the retirement age, if agreements can be reached.

Neal is a civil engineer and a lieutenant in the Navy Reserve who was deployed to Iraq to work on construction and security improvements at camps for special operations forces. He supports carrying concealed weapons. Bush said she would only consider it with strict requirements, including keeping guns out of places like churches, bars, schools and libraries.

Bush said the current income tax increase should drop as scheduled in 2015, and Neal said he supports eliminating it immediately. Bush also would consider a tax on junk food to help pay for schools.

She is for abortion rights. He opposes abortion, with exceptions for rape, incest and when the mother's life is at risk.

49th District

This southwest suburban race pits a longtime educator from Shorewood against the owner of a small computer business from Plainfield.

Democrat Jennifer Bertino-Tarrant, 43, is the Will County regional school superintendent, now in her second term. Republican Garrett Peck, 34, is a Plainfield village trustee.

Bertino-Tarrant has been a teacher and principal and has taught part-time in a community college and at a private university. She said her background buttresses a strong desire to provide a thoughtful voice of experience in the education debate.

Peck operates Magik Technology Solutions, which works on computer hardware and software and provides a variety of related services. Peck's political pitch emphasizes creating jobs to stop Illinoisans from fleeing the state's high taxes and business fees. Peck also made it clear he would like to eliminate the state's Health Facilities Planning Board, which has blocked building a hospital in Plainfield.

The candidates differ on the income-tax increase. She opposed the increase but said anyone seeking an immediate repeal is providing a "nice sound bite" without a solution for getting the state budget in order. She said the tax increase should be reduced on schedule. He wants the tax hike repealed now.

Both said they are opposed to an immediate tax shift from state to locals for teacher pensions but are open-minded about a gradual one sometime down the road. Both said they want to ensure that property-tax payers would be protected. He suggested local districts should oversee pension investments.

The contest also has been the second most expensive suburban Senate race. Bertino-Tarrant has raised almost $690,000 while Peck has collected $470,000. Nearly all of it has come in since July 1, according to the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform.

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