Joliet — Eric Mattson suddenly became the incumbent in his campaign when Democrats appointed him to fill a state Senate vacancy on May 6, gaining what many consider an advantage in the coming election in the 43rd District.
Mattson, a Joliet firefighter who has never held elected office before, said he doesn’t see it that way.
“I can’t think of one advantage. If anything, it’s made it more difficult,” Mattson said, arguing that his new position takes time that otherwise could be spent campaigning. “I’ve got to work. Constituents are needing assistance.”
But the plus side of incumbency became evident the week after Mattson’s appointment to a job representing most of Will County, 213,000 residents and the cities of Joliet and Bolingbrook.
An email sent from his legislative office introduced Mattson to constituents — and potential voters — and invited them to call his office “if you would like to invite me to tour your businesses, schools or discuss issues important to our community.”
A few days later, a press release issued by the Illinois Senate Democratic Caucus on Mattson’s behalf quoted the new senator inviting constituents to nominate potential inductees for the Senior Illinoisan Hall of Fame.
Rachel Ventura, Mattson’s opponent in the June 28 primary, took the position that the vacancy created by John Connor’s resignation from the seat should not go to either candidate in the primary because it would favor one over the other.
The two Republicans running in the primary said if their party were in the position of picking a replacement weeks ahead of the primary they would have sought the job.
State law provides that the party of the legislator who vacates the seat name a replacement in 30 days.
“If it were the opposite and it was the Republican seat and it was offered to me, would I take it? Yeah,” Republican candidate Michelle Lee said. “I’d almost have to take it. If you don’t take it, how would that look?”
Lee said the appointment worked more to Mattson’s advantage in the Democratic primary than in the general election.
“It clearly to me looks like a party endorsement,” she said.
Diane Harris, the other Republican in the primary, also said she would take the appointment “if I was given the same chance.”
But Harris questioned the process.
“Time and again, Democrats use the appointment process and direct donations to preferred candidates rather than letting voters make the selection,” Harris said, adding it was “not the first time that seat has been filled that way.”
Connor’s predecessor, Pat McGuire, was appointed to the 43rd District state Senate seat by local Democrats months ahead of the 2012 election when A.J. Wilhelmi resigned to take a job as a hospital lobbyist. Wilhelmi had been appointed to the seat in 2005 when the late Larry Walsh Sr. resigned after being elected Will County Executive.
Walsh’s son, Larry Walsh Jr., was among those who applied for the appointment to the 43rd District state Senate seat when Wilhelmi vacated it. He didn’t get the appointment. But three months later, Walsh Jr. was appointed to replace the late Jack McGuire, who resigned as state representative for the 86th District weeks after winning the primary election.
Walsh Jr. continues to represent the 86th District. Pat McGuire, too, regularly won reelection to the state Senate after first being appointed.
Connor was not seeking reelection to the Senate seat. Instead, he is running for judge in Will County.
His resignation was due to the need to take care of the health of an immediate family member over the course of three months, Connor said when announcing his resignation on April 30.
Connor said new rules could be put in place for filling legislative vacancies, but those who object to the process don’t pursue changes in the aftermath of an appointment.
“If people believe this process is not the correct one, there are ways to fix that,” Connor said. “We should look at doing that when there are no campaigns going on or elections coming up.”