Senate President John Cullerton announced his retirement Thursday as the General Assembly wrapped up its last session day of the year, and the FBI continued its investigation into alleged political corruption in the senate and other elements of Illinois government.
Following the final day of fall legislative session Thursday, the senate president’s spokesman confirmed the Chicago Democrat told members of the Democratic caucus he’s retiring.
The retirement is effective in January, so senators will need to choose a new president then. His term in Senate District 6 doesn't end until 2023. An interim replacement will be appointed within 30 days of his actual retirement, according to state law. A special election will then need to be held to complete the term.
Cullerton has been in the General Assembly since 1979, initially serving in the House until 1991. He then was appointed a senator in 1991. He was selected to be senate president in 2008.
During his tenure, Cullerton oversaw the removal of former Gov. Rod Blagojevich following Blagojevich’s impeachment in the House in 2009.
In 2011, he helped usher in a temporary income tax increase that expired in 2015.
Cullerton also supported a reform measure in 2013 to reduce pension benefits that was ultimately found to be unconstitutional by the state Supreme Court.
In 2015 and 2016, Cullerton was involved in negotiations to get piecemeal budgets passed during an impasse with former Gov. Bruce Rauner’s administration. While Cullerton was able to pass one spending plan in that time, the House never followed through, leading to the stalemate.
Cullerton’s official bio says he and former Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno “paved the way for a bipartisan deal [in 2017] that broke the budget stalemate and set the stage for economic recovery.”
That deal included a 33 percent income tax increase that Rauner vetoed, which the House and Senate overrode, ending the stalemate.
More recently, members of Cullerton's caucus have been under investigation by the FBI.
This summer, federal agents raided the home and offices of state Sen. Martin Sandoval, D-Cicero. They were looking for information related to a possible kickback scheme that could have touched on several industries, including energy, gambling and transportation.
While Sandoval has not been charged with a crime, Cullerton resisted calls for Sandoval to be removed as the powerful chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, including from Gov. J.B. Pritzker.
After details from a search warrant were released that included damaging information about the federal corruption probe, Sandoval was finally removed as chairman.
Earlier in the summer, Cullerton's distant cousin state Sen. Tom Cullerton was indicted for embezzling from a labor union. Tom Cullerton has pleaded not guilty. He remains in office where his chairmanship on the Senate Labor Committee was transferred to the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee.
Cullerton is 71. He and his wife, Pam, have five children and three grandchildren. He served in the U.S. Army and attended Loyola University. Aside from being a Senator, he’s also a partner with the law firm of Thompson Coburn.
“In the past decade as Senate President, John Cullerton has been a passionate advocate for improving Illinois – whether it was his focus on ending the scourge of youth smoking, dedication to fully funding education or efforts to advance critically needed infrastructure throughout the state,” Gov. J.B. Pritzker said in a statement. “Over the years, I came to know John as my state senator, and this past year I have truly appreciated his work to advance our common agenda to stand with working families. I wish him all the best in the years to come, and I know that Pam and his children will be glad to start their next chapter as a family.”
“Senate President John Cullerton has led the Illinois Senate with honor and distinction, and our Chamber will forever be better as a result," Senate Republican Leader Bill Brady said in a statement. "I have known John for many years, but it has been during the last two years in my role as Senate Republican Leader that I have seen first-hand the integrity, honesty, and humor that he brought to the responsibilities his office entailed."
Brady continued: “We may not have always agreed on how best to address the issues facing the state, but there can be no denying John always put the people of Illinois first. I wish the Senate President and his family well as he begins this next chapter in his life. I am grateful to have had him as a colleague, and I will forever be grateful to call him my friend.”