The Hill

The Newspaper for and about the U.S. Congress

JUNE 10, 2003


Illinois lawyer Simmons garners support in contest for the Democratic Senate bid

John Simmons has no name recognition, no donor network and no government experience. The last office he held was student body president at Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville.

But the 33-year-old Illinois Democrat, who late last month announced he’s seeking his party’s Senate nomination, has one possible edge over the five other Democratic contenders — he’s a trial lawyer.

With Sen. Peter Fitzgerald declining to seek a second term, Illinois is one of only two states with an open seat in 2004.

Like Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.), a former trial lawyer now running for president, Simmons is quite familiar with many attorneys currently active in Democratic Party politics. But it still remains to be seen whether he can count on support from the legal community, as Edwards has successfully done.

While many personal-injury lawyers back state Comptroller Dan Hynes, some Chicago-area attorneys support Simmons.

Sen. Zell Miller (D-Ga.)

“If someone asked me who I’m backing, it’s John Simmons,” said John Cooney, of Cooney & Conway, in Chicago. His firm recently teamed up with the Simmons firm to win a $34 million verdict against the Shell Oil Co, according to the Simmons firm’s website. “I know that he has a commitment to jobs and labor that is second to none.”

Cooney added, “It’s very appealing if the candidate is not necessarily a Chicagoan.”

The other Democrats running for the Illinois Senate seat hail from the Chicago area.

Referring to Simmons, Cooney said: “Here’s somebody who’s not a silver-spoon kid or from a political dynasty. He’s not a frivolous guy. He’s personally very engaging.”

Hynes has deep political roots: His father sits on the Democratic National Committee and is a former Cook County assessor. The co-chairmen of Hynes’ campaign include Cook County Commissioner John P. Daley, the brother of Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, and county board President John Stroger.

Other trial lawyers said they would wait and see how the campaigns are shaping up before backing anyone in the Democratic primary next March.

“I’ve never met Mr. Simmons, and I know nothing about him,” said Philip Corboy Jr., of Corboy & Demetrio, one of Illinois’ most prominent personal-injury firms. “I’m a Democrat, so obviously I would look at every Democratic candidate’s credentials. … A lot of people like myself are laying low right now.”

Corboy said he likes many of the Democrats running. “Dan Hynes is a wonderful guy. He’s got a lot of ambition. Gery Chico, also a wonderful guy. There’s a woman by the name of Maria Pappas. I know her very personally, very well. She’d shake things up.”

Both Corboy’s father, Philip H. Corboy, and Thomas Demetrio — the Chicago firm’s two name partners — are past presidents of the 23,000-member Chicago Bar Association and the Illinois Trial Lawyers Association.

Attorneys supporting Hynes cited the 34-year-old comptroller’s experience in state government and professional ties. One of those lawyers, John Brannigan, of Maher & Brannigan, in Flossmoor, added that Simmons’ legal connections wouldn’t help much.

“I really don’t think that lawyers, by and large, follow other lawyers kind of in tow, just because they’re lawyers,” said Brannigan, who gave $300 to Hynes’ campaign in the first quarter of 2003. “The fact that [Simmons is] a lawyer, I don’t think he’ll take away any of [Hynes’] lawyer following.”

Brannigan also noted that Hynes is an attorney in addition to being state comptroller. In fact, some of Hynes’ legal support comes from the years he spent practicing healthcare law in Chicago.

Edward Murnane, president of the Illinois Civil Justice League, a group that lobbies for tort reform, suggested it could be tough for Simmons to channel votes and dollars away from Hynes, who’s been unofficially running for the Senate for months.

“On the Democratic side, probably the front-runner right now is Dan Hynes,” said Murnane, who worked in the Reagan and first Bush administrations. “He’s been elected to public office, he’s got a good public image, he comes out of Cook County.”

Murnane also took aim at Madison County, where the Simmons firm is based. “It has been the most active class-action forum in the United States. It is one of the counties that has been identified as a judicial hellhole by the American Tort Reform Association.”

None of the possible Republican candidates seeking the GOP nomination has achieved front-runner status. With Republican Sen. Peter Fitzgerald declining to seek a second term, Illinois is one of only two states with an open Senate seat in 2004.

Democrats in Washington have said winning the Illinois seat is imperative if they are to take back the Senate. Republicans are poised to win retiring Democratic Sen. Zell Miller’s seat in Georgia, the other state with an open seat.

Neither Simmons nor Hynes offered their thoughts about tort reform or Republican efforts to curb what many conservatives view as frivolous lawsuits.

In a prepared statement on his decision to jump in the race, Simmons avoided any mention of trial lawyers and tort reform.

“I want to make a difference on the issues of health care and education, and so many other issues,” he said.

Hynes’ spokeswoman, Chris Mather, said: “Dan is a former healthcare attorney and his wife is a doctor, so he understands the effect of skyrocketing medical malpractice insurance. But in trying to rein in out-of-control healthcare costs, we must ensure that the rights of victims are protected and that they have access to our civil justice system.”