Karmeier win bellows resounding message

Ann Knef Nov. 5, 2004, 8:16am

Newly elected Illinois Supreme Court Justice Lloyd Karmeier and wife, Mary, enjoy a moment on election night.

Karmeier prepares to vote.

Voters electing Washington County Circuit Judge Lloyd Karmeier to the Illinois Supreme Court sent a resounding message on Election Day.

"The medical malpractice isssue was the most visible, most important factor in the election," said Mike Lawrence, director of the Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinos Unviersity at Carbondale. "But a sub plot was the dominance of Madison County in the judiciary."

Rival Gordon E. Maag, whose career was established in Madison County, was dosed with double jeopardy upon losing the high court race and retention to the 5th Appellate Court. Maag is the first in Illinois to lose retention since voters were given the decision in 1964. He received 55 percent "yes" votes, but needed 60 percent to keep his position on the bench.

"Maag probably would have been retained if that was the only place he appeared on the ballot," Lawrence said. "He lost because of the fallout of the Supreme Court race."

The message sent by voters in the 5th Judicial District could not have been clearer, according to Senate Republican Leader Frank Watson (R-Greenville). He said legislators ought to take notice of the results.

"This was a referendum on the medical malpractice crisis we face," Watson said. "That message of overwhelming support has got to resonate in Springfield with the legislative leaders, the president of the Senate and the governor.

"If it doesn't happen, and we have to go on without relief, it will become an even bigger issue politically. Republicans are willing to do whatever it takes to drive down the costs of medical malpractice insurance."

State Sen. Dave Luechtefeld (R-Okawville) agreed that the medical malpractice issue was the real referendum in the election.

"Even in Madison and St. Clair Counties where the problem is the greatest, these people voted out of disgust. They want changes to the court system in Madison and St. Clair County. They're sick and tired of being known as the lawsuit capital."


An enhanced ground game that churned out Republican voters, coupled with the organization of a special interest group--physicians--helped Republican Karmeier win in a solidly Democratic district, according to those close to Karmeier's campaign.

"Having the right candidate with the right cause proved that a Republican could win the district," said a political field operative working on the Karmeier campaign.

"The organization of doctors was a big factor in Karmeier's win. That was key. That kind of cultivated relationship had never been done before. Democrats have always been effective using special interest groups to further their cause."

Lawrence believes the success of the physician lobby will have a lasting impact on politics in Illinois.

"We may see interest groups get more involved in retention issues," he said. "That 60 percent may be a tempting target to send messages."

Karmeier was able to easily defeat Maag in a district that has more registered Democrats than Republicans. Of the 37 counties in the district, Karmeier won 29. None were perhaps more critical than the battleground in Madison County, where Karmeier won 57 percent of the vote.

"We didn't sense it was going to be this big," said Steve Tomaszewski, Karmeier's campaign spokesman. "The judge got a good reception everywhere he went. There was a good turnout. People were enthused."

"The physicians' energy was huge," he said. "It was very important to the race. Ordinary citizens don't know anything about judicial races and they're not familiar either with the courts. But they took it to heart when their doctors contacted them about this issue. It was a big part of it."


After a costly, grueling battle for the state's highest court, Karmeier declared victory from his hometown of Nashville, where supporters gathered for an election night celebration at the American Legion Hall.

Twenty pounds lighter than he was from the start of the campaign, Karmeier expressed relief that the long and treacherous trail was over.

“I’ve traveled over 50,000 miles and missed some family things, but they’ve been very supportive,” Karmeier said. “Mary (Mrs. Karmeier) has traveled with me and we’ve spent a lot of quality time together.”

While the world watched the contentious race become the most expensive state supreme court race in U.S. history, Karmeier said he believes his mandate is to “do the right thing.”

“Unfortunately there was the huge money and negative ads. But those who know me know that I have a duty to the people, not to partisan concerns.”

The newly elected justice, who will be sworn into office on Dec. 6, believes he won the district because voters perceived him as the most qualified candidate.

“There was also a perception that Madison County courts are financed by trial attorneys who also finance appellate and supreme courts. The people felt it was not working right.

“The medical crisis, with doctors leaving the area, also played a role,” he added.

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