The Fifth Legislative District’s Democratic organizations have set a March 14 date to select a successor for former state Senator Rickey Hendon, who suddenly resigned last Thursday from the office he held since 1993.
Secretary of State Jesse White will chair the committee to select Hendon’s replacement. Those interested will meet with the district’s 13 Democratic committee members March 14 at 1 p.m. at Moretti’s Ristorante, 1645 W. Jackson. A decision will be made that day.
While it is uncertain who will fill Hendon’s seat, one name has already been eliminated – Darlena Williams-Burnett, wife of 27th Ward Alderman Walter Burnett.
White explained that Darlena Burnett’s name “has come up in discussion,” but he added she would not be considered to prevent any hint of nepotism or conflict of interest. White is the Democratic committeeman of the 27th Ward.
White is already looking toward next year’s election. He noted whoever is selected must have “all the qualifications to represent the district and get re-elected.” Hendon’s seat is up for grabs in the 2012 general election.
One candidate pursuing the seat is AmySue Mertens, the second-place vote getter in 2008’s democratic primary for the seat. Mertens, who received 25 percent of the vote to Hendon’s 62 percent and was endorsed by the Chicago Tribune and the Sun-Times, has written a monthly column for Austin Weekly News’ sister publication Chicago Journal in the past.
Mertens said that her runner-up bid should be weighed into the decision.
“I would hope that the 13 people who make this decision would weigh very heavily that when I ran, I was endorsed by numerous organizations and individuals – both of our major papers – who all said that the energy and the passion and the background that I had was what the district needs, and that was when Sen. Hendon was an option,” Mertens said. “I think it would behoove folks to take a look at that, considering that I put myself into the public sphere for judgment and this was the reaction.”
Attempts to reach Hendon for comment were unsuccessful. However, in his resignation letter to Senate President John Cullerton, Hendon said it was time.
“I have decided to call it a day and retire from this wonderful institution,” Hendon wrote. “I appreciate my constituents and supporters, and I pray that they will accept my decision and allow me to move on with my life.”
Often described as colorful and flamboyant, Hendon has not been without some controversy. Hendon was widely criticized for questioning whether a female colleague was a “true blonde” while on the Senate floor. The comment came during a ritual “hazing” for new state senate members offering their first floor arguments. Hendon later apologized for the comment.
More recently, Hendon blasted then Republican gubernatorial challenger Bill Brady as “racist, sexist and homophobic” in the waning days of Brady’s campaign to unseat Gov. Pat Quinn.
Hendon, nicknamed “Hollywood,” even had a fleeting moment in the movie-making business with his 1992 movie “Butterscotch and Chocolate.” The flick told tale of two reporters looking for a big scoop in order to save their jobs.
While Hendon may seem cheeky at times, his colleagues both in the city council and in Springfield recognized the veteran state senator as a tireless advocate for the west side.
That zealousness, however, may have landed him in some trouble. A federal grand jury has issued subpoenas for state records regarding grants Hendon sponsored for several west side agencies.
“Senator Hendon was a hustler in a good way,” Ald. Walter Burnett said. “Senator Hendon would hustle money for the community. He is not shy about hustling.”
But Burnett admitted his and Hendon’s relationship got off to a rocky start. In Hendon’s early days in the state senate, Burnett called him “an aggressive campaigner” who “did a lot of shenanigans.” But Burnett noted that Hendon mellowed in his senior days.
“Him and I, in earlier years, were actually on different sides, [but] we have grown to have a mutual working relationship,” he said. “He is going to be missed.”
Fellow State Senator Kimberly Lightford (4th District) knew this term would be Hendon’s last, but she was surprised at the timing of his resignation.
“I didn’t anticipate him leaving right now in the middle of session. I thought he would go to the end of session,” she said.
When asked about Hendon’s abrupt exit, Lightford believes Hendon may have become disillusion with politics. She said he had expressed disappointment in the process to select a consensus black candidate for Chicago’s mayor, a backing which Hendon sought. Hendon withdraw his bid early in the race, citing health reasons.
“That is just a small part of it,” she said, adding that politicians do suffer burn-out. “I think he feels he was fighting for all these causes to bring resources home to his district and then he is being penalized for fighting for grants to help his district.”
Lightford said Hendon had a passion for protecting seniors’ rights and advocating for legislations that uplifted Blacks. Hendon, she noted, took issue with the red light traffic cameras and the police cameras. She said he felt they were an “invasion of the African-American community.”
“He was always fighting for the little man,” Lightford added.
Chicago Journal Editor Ben Meyerson contributed to this report.