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When political disagreements get physical

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 10, 2011 - During the last meeting of the legislative session, Illinois Sen. Kyle McCarter, R-Lebanon, and Mike Jacobs, D-East Moline, got into a confrontation over political family connections.

The State Journal-Register in Springfield reported that during a debate "McCarter mentioned that Jacobs' father, Denny, a former state senator, is a lobbyist for Com Ed. McCarter was admonished by the presiding officer that invoking personalities is not allowed during debate on bills."

After the bill passed, Jacobs confronted McCarter. "He began to curse at me and punch me in the chest. This is behavior that should not be tolerated in the Illinois State senate," McCarter said.

Jacobs and Senate Democrats each responded to McCarter's accusations in press releases sent June 7. Senate Democrats talked about the fight hindering the Legislative process for the citizens in Illinois.

"Personal attacks during debate and disorderly behavior should not be tolerated or condoned on the Senate floor. The conduct of both Senators Jacobs and McCarter is inconsistent with the Senate's Rules governing decorum. I am encouraging both senators to reach an amicable solution among them. This will allow the Senate to move beyond this incident and focus on what matters to the people of Illinois."

Sangamon County state's attorney John Milhiser declined to file charges earlier this week.

In his press release, Jacobs claimed that he "let his emotions cloud his judgment." He also claimed that McCarter made the attack far more personal and direct than he expected, and that he was disappointed in the direction the debate had taken.

McCarter says that the legislature in Springfield needs to be more accountable for some of their actions. "They only spent 6 minutes, reading a bill that's 150 pages long, there is no way a senator could know what was in that bill," McCarter said.

The issue at hand, according to McCarter, was the Commonwealth Edison Bill or, House Bill 1652, which would raise electricity rates. "A culture of corruption is going on in this state. We need transparency and accountability in the Senate," McCarter said. In addition to the ComEd Bill, he says another example of cronyism would be the Worker's Compensation bill, a backdoor agreement between trial lawyers and union officials.

Ray Watt, of the office of communication for Senate Republicans, said something bigger is at stake. "These are statewide issues that are really the driving forces behind Senate Republicans." Watt says that the Senate's been hotly debating issues such as workers' compensation, tax increases and fiscal plans.

"Sen. McCarter's concerned about who's pushing legislation and who's behind it," Watt said. Both Senate Democrats and Republicans talk about transparency and what they need to do to make progress.

Brian Fogerty, an assistant professor of political science at UMSL, thinks the whole situation is odd. "It's fairly common to see physical fights in other countries, but not here in the U.S.," Fogerty said. One of the reasons for the tension could be the fact that most the Senate legislation goes toward Chicago causing an urban-rural divide.

Fogerty says that citizens living in a state where this happens can become more divided.

Fogerty compares New York to Illinois saying that voters tend to be very pessimistic in those states, because their needs are not being met.

"With the Illinois Legislature, are citizens supposed to get jealous that the money's all going toward the city? That can add more tension; it can almost make state governments dysfunctional."

The real question is whether voters in Illinois are concerned enough with the current battle between Democrats and Republicans.

"I think we've had too much of the senators getting along and acting like they are friends where citizens wind up getting the raw end of the deal," McCarter said. He also thinks the solution is to stop being statesman-like and get to the core of the issues on the Senate floor.

Fogerty thinks that the problem ultimately lies with the voters and how they perceive what's going on in Springfield.

"Sometimes voters get turned off from politics, but there can be an increase in turnout of voting," Fogerty said. Many voters tend to get upset, voting out people who are in power no matter which party they belong to.

The House in Missouri seems to operate a lot more smoothly than Illinois, according to Fogerty, because St. Louis and Kansas City aren't overriding the politics of the entire state.

Fogerty doesn't see politics becoming less partisan given the current trends. When elected, politicians do try to create good policies to benefit their citizens, Fogerty said.

Sen. McCarter claims he's not in politics for monetary gain, because he is already a successful business owner. And he says he's not backing down from criticism: "There's a culture of corruption going on in this state, and we need transparency to get rid of it."

Ray Carter, a senior at Purdue University, is a Beacon intern.

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