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A Democrat from DuPage heads to Senate in Springfield

State Sen. Tom Cullert(D-VillPark) said idegovernment consolidatisprang from discussihe had when he was mayor VillPark. | File~Sun-Times Media

State Sen. Tom Cullerton (D-Villa Park) said the idea of government consolidation sprang from a discussion he had when he was mayor of Villa Park. | File~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: December 12, 2012 6:44AM

SPRINGFIELD — One of the most politically entrenched Democratic families in Chicago has established a beachhead in the Republican stronghold of DuPage County.

Tom Cullerton, scion of the dynasty that gave Chicago legendary ward heeler P.J. “Parky” Cullerton and the famed “Cullerton seat” in the City Council, was elected Tuesday to the state Senate from DuPage.

The election marked a historic, remarkable shift in Illinois politics: It’s thought to be the first time the historically crimson county has sent a Democratic senator to Springfield.

Cullerton, the village president of Villa Park, will be representing a piece of turf, no less, that once belonged to former Senate President James “Pate” Philip (R-Wood Dale), one of the most dominant GOP lions at the Statehouse in the past half century.

Cullerton happens to be a third cousin of Senate President John Cullerton (D-Chicago), whom Tom Cullerton said he first met as an eighth-grader at St. Athanasius in Evanston on the same kind of Springfield field trip nearly every Chicago-area school kid takes once while growing up.

“I remember he got our name announced on the floor and everybody at my grade school thought it was awesome,” said Cullerton, whose roots in Rogers Park and Evanston are a world away from the Cullerton clan’s home base in the 38th Ward.

Both Cullertons are descendents of Edward Cullerton, one of Chicago’s original settlers.

The Cullerton family’s political fortunes began just before the Chicago Fire of 1871 with the election of saloon keeper Edward “Foxy” Cullerton and have continued almost uninterrupted. 

A family member has had a place in the City Council in one ward or another for 127 of the past 142 years. The late Ald. Edward Cullerton served for 49 years, still the longest tenure of any city councilman in Chicago history.

He is the Cullerton after whom Cullerton Street is named.

“It is kinda cool,” Tom Cullerton said of his family’s political history. “I’ve been down to Cullerton Street, it’s a cool thing to see. However, if you ask me, I probably wouldn’t be able to tell you who it’s named after.

“Don’t put that in the paper,” cracked Cullerton, a plain-spoken, 43-year-old member of Teamsters Local 734 whose day job is driving a delivery truck and selling products for Hostess.

Tom Cullerton’s unlikely ascension this week springs from his 51 percent to 49 percent victory over incumbent Sen. Carole Pankau (R-Carol Stream), a fixture in Springfield since 1993. The margin surprised strategists in both parties; Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno (R-Lemont) called his win “shocking.”

By design, the Senate president said he didn’t involve himself or his campaign operation in Tom Cullerton’s spring primary for the 23rd Senate District seat or that much in the fall general election campaign, though two Cullerton-controlled political funds did contribute close to $90,000.

“He totally won this race on his own. If anything, I was worried my name, our name, might work against him. Some of the negative ads against him were trying to link him to me,” John Cullerton said.

John Cullerton said internal Senate Democratic polling showed Tom Cullerton trailing Pankau even up to Election Day, though within the margin of error, meaning there was a chance for victory.

“I’m the one who told Tom he won,” John Cullerton said. “He was just stunned. He didn’t know he was gonna win. Our polls had him behind, but close.”

Tom Cullerton attributed his win to “hard work, just a lot of hard work. I think our final tally was over 100,000 doors knocked and over 500,000 phone calls made. We were out every day, knocking on doors.”

DuPage has elected Democratic House members as recently as the 1970s, but not a senator.

Like other Democrats this election cycle, Tom Cullerton was propelled by the headwinds of having President Barack Obama at the top of the ticket; a strong Latino turnout, and a district drawn by Democrats to help their own. Republican U.S. Rep. Joe Walsh’s disappointing showing against Democrat Tammy Duckworth in DuPage also led to Pankau’s demise.

Tom Cullerton, who has served as Villa Park’s village president since 2009 and is a married father of three, said he is considering leaving municipal office when his term expires next May, but he hasn’t made a decision.

As DuPage’s only Democratic mayor, he prides himself on working well with Republicans and having an even temperament.

“I think everybody knows me as having sort of a level head. I’m willing to talk to everybody and anybody and to listen to both sides. I don’t go in stone faced with ‘Here’s how it’ll be and that’s it.’

“I’m not here to railroad a Democratic majority. I’m here to make where you work and live better,” he said. “That’s why I’m in politics.”

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