Earlean Collins

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Earlean Collins

b. September 4, 1937

Cook County, Cook County Commissioner (1998-2014)
Illinois General Assembly, State Senator (1976-1998)

Earlean Collins began her political career during a time when Chicago saw the emergence of many influential African-American politicians that included Cardiss Collins (no relation), Emil Jones, Danny Davis, and Harold Washington. In 1976, Collins became the first African-American woman elected to the Illinois State Senate after defeating Raymond Welsh, who was under indictment and an ally to then-Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley. Collins's victory at the polls was credited to a growing independent movement on Chicago's West Side, which would come to elect Danny Davis to the Chicago City Council. Her former marriage to Illinois House Representative Otis Collins, who Davis considered a "political godfather," may have also helped Earlean.

In Springfield, Collins allied herself with an independent bloc of Democrats known as the "Crazy Eight," which held sway over the senate since the Democrats could not reach a majority without securing the group's votes. Confrontations between the Crazy Eight and senate Democrats erupted during the 1977 election of senate president. Democrats wanted to elect Sen. Tom Hynes to the top spot but the Crazy Eight threw their support around Sen. Terry Bruce. The senate black caucus, however, supported Sen. Harold Washington. The Democrats compromised with the black caucus and named Sen. Kenneth Hall as assistant majority leader and Sen. Richard Newhouse as chairman of the Legislative Committee on Public Assistance. Washington was promised to be vice chairman of the Judiciary Committee and Collins vice chair of the Labor Committee.

Over the years, Collins's independence but her at odds with other state Democrats. The party unsuccessfully attempted to oust Collins from her seat in 1979. Collins blamed the move on then-Chicago Mayor Jane Bryne but state senate leaders said it was due to Collins's unwillingness to cooperate with the party. After the incident, Collins began endorsing party candidates against some of her West Side allies.

Collins exercised her political influence during the 1990s by seeking a more distinguished role in state government. Collins made a move for senate minority leader when the state GOP took control of the senate in 1992. She eventually backed down to her chief rival, Emil Jones, and became one of his assistant minority leaders. Two years later, Collins ran for state comptroller. She narrowly defeated then-Kane County Coroner Mary Lou Kearns in the Democratic primary thanks partly to the support of Bobby Rush, who was then the deputy chairman of the Illinois Democratic Party. Collins however suffered a defeat in the general election.

Collins refocused her sights on Cook County during an unexpected game of moving chairs when Illinois U.S. Congresswoman Cardiss Collins (again, no relation) announced she would retire in 1996. The announcement ignited a scramble for a successor in which Earlean's name was briefly floated around. The seat eventually went to Danny Davis, who was at the time a Cook County commissioner of the 1st District.

Davis quickly endorsed Earlean to replace him on the county board but other West Side politicians had someone else in mind—Darlena Williams-Burnett, wife of Chicago Alderman Walter Burnett. Williams-Burnett won the appointment to the seat thanks partly to the backing of then-Cook County Recorder of Deeds Jesse White. But Collins won the Democratic primary against Williams-Burnett and went on to win in the general election with 80 percent of the votes. She wasn't the only fresh face on the Cook County Board either. Commissioners Mike Quigley and Gregg Goslin were also elected that year.

Once elected, Collins proved to be the crucial swing vote and outspoken critic of the Stroger family. In 2003, Collins gave the decisive vote in shooting down then-Cook County President John Stroger's proposed budget that called for tax hikes. It was the first time in 30 years that the board successfully voted down a president's budget. She allied herself with Commissioners Quigley, Forrest Claypool, Larry Suffredin and all five Republicans in exchange for a series of budget reforms that would have shifted power away from the president and to the board.

Collins's vote would continue to be just as vital in other matters, including the appointment of Commissioner Bobbie Steele to interim president after the resignation of John Stroger in 2006. Ironically, Collins was also considered a likely candidate for the position.

Collins is married to John Grant, a retired U.S. postal service employee, and has one son. She retired her seat in 2014, creating an open seat race to succeed her. After a raucous West Side competition, Richard Boykin succeed her.

Employment and Electoral History

Before she became elected to the Illinois State Senate in 1976, Collins worked for the Department of Children and Family Services.


  • University of Chicago, B.A., Sociology, Childhood Development
  • Crane Junior College, Real Estate, Liberal Arts

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