In Illinois, a fight between big money and grassroots insurgencies rages on

Photo by José Alejandro Córcoles

Supporters celebrate J.B. Pritzker winning the Democratic primary for governor of Illinois on March 20, 2018.

In both major parties, Tuesday’s primary showed that the energy is coming from grassroots insurgencies at the expense of party establishments. My guess is that in both the short and long term, this is good for Democrats and bad for Republicans.

In the meantime, there’s still an outsized – and undemocratic – role being played by big money.

Gov. Bruce Rauner – who has been running TV commercials throughout his term in office – barely survived a challenge by conservative state Rep. Jeanne Ives, who mobilized the party base against Rauner’s social moderation on abortion and immigration. But those issues will not be at play in the general election, and Rauner has a lot of money to spend pushing his message promising tax cuts.

It’s hard to see that message translating into reality: Rauner’s own budget proposal this year would have been even further out of whack without increased revenues passed over his veto last year. You can’t cut income taxes without raising property taxes if you want to fund public education. But it will certainly make for some effective TV commercials.

In the bigger picture, though, Rauner’s close call is another sign that in the Age of Trump, the Republican coalition of big business and social conservatives seems to be coming apart at the wheels. And while there is energy at the GOP grassroots, it offers dead-end proposals: massive deportations will just depress the economy, and arming teachers (as Ives advocated) is no solution to school shootings at all. We can hope this is the dying pang of the old order.

J.B. Pritzker had to spend most of the $70 million he’s donated to his campaign so far in order to steamroll his opponents, and this shows both his strength and his weakness. He’s got the money, he’s an effective communicator, and his message of opposing a “failed governor” and advocating a progressive income tax is aligned with reality. But he’s got vulnerabilities: as a longtime Democratic insider kibbitzing on tape with the likes of Rod Blagojevich, and as a rich guy manipulating his own property taxes.

“Fight” is the operative word for both Rauner and Pritzker. In the face of his failures, Rauner depicts himself as a “fighter” against Democratic machine corruption. Tacitly referencing his vulnerabilities, Pritzker says (in an online ad I saw a thousand times this month), “they’re going to hit us hard and we have to fight back.”

The “fight” is going to take place in paid commercials. (The online battle has already started.) It’s quite likely to outpace the current record for a state election: $280 million spent in the 2010 California governor’s race. It’s not going to be spent educating voters about issues, but on negative ads that distort the issues, like the ads by Pritzker attacking Daniel Biss for supporting pension cuts that Pritzker also backed, or by Rauner ludicrously tying Ives to House Speaker Mike Madigan.

If the Democrats want to stand for democracy, they have to get behind legislation to enact a small-donor match system that could counteract the corrosive influence of big money. A bill allowing state candidates to opt into such a system, sponsored by Biss, passed the State Senate last year but was held up in Madigan’s House. Pritzker finally backed it in the final weeks of the campaign. He should push it aggressively.

Sarah Brune of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform said she’s optimistic that the huge expense of the coming campaign – which she is afraid will trickle down to legislative races – will help make the case for this reform.

Down ballot, independent Democrats scored impressively against the machine, buoyed by a huge turnout of energized voters. Fritz Kaegi overwhelmed Cook County Assessor Joe Berrios, who was wounded by multiple studies showing how his assessment system favored wealthy taxpayers. But a third candidate, Andrea Raila, now threatens to challenge those results in court.

Raila should stand down. She’s right that the requirements to get on the ballot are unduly burdensome. But her petition collection operation was wildly incompetent. I’ve had a couple of long conversations with Raila; she’s a genuine reformer, but defeating Berrios required a sophisticated political operation. Kaegi offered that, and Raila didn’t. She spent the entire campaign in court arguing to get on the ballot. He ran for assessor, built a broad coalition, got his message out – and won.

Photo by Stacey Rupolo

Jesus “Chuy” Garcia attends a rally for Sen. Bernie Sanders held at Chicago State University on Feb. 26, 2016.

It was in the congressional campaigns of Jesús “Chuy” García and Marie Newman – and in the remarkable victory of García protege Aaron Ortiz, a 26-year-old college counselor over longtime state Rep. Dan Burke – that hope for a renewed progressive direction for Democrats shines most brightly. Under García’s leadership, an independent Latino voting bloc and a network of independent precinct organizations is effectively challenging the dominance of the old Democratic machine run by Madigan and Ald. Ed Burke.

Newman came within a hair of defeating Rep. Dan Lipinski, and the congressional seat he inherited from his father can no longer be viewed as a minor fiefdom guaranteed in perpetuity. One positive result was forcing the anti-immigrant Lipinski to support the DREAM Act for young immigrants.

Chuy García is set to play a role as a major local and national leader, bringing together the pro-labor, working class politics of the Bernie Sanders movement and the defense of immigrant communities championed by congressman, Luis Gutiérrez. García also brings a long history of standing up to the machine , and a commitment to nurturing the black-Latino coalition – all of which will be necessary to turn this city’s politics around.

Meanwhile, Mayor Rahm Emanuel is betting that his access to big money will allow him to steamroll any nascent insurgencies in next year’s mayoral election. Key to that strategy will be preventing blacks, Latinos, and other progressives from coalescing into an effective opposition. So far this is working – but Tuesday’s result show there is an energy out there, a drive for reform and for a new politics that must be worrisome for the mayor.

  • Bonni McKeown

    It’s really obvious that if you have more than one progressive/reform candidate in the race, you can’t beat money. In Dem. governor’s race, Biss and Kennedy (not even mentioned in your article) together had well over 40% according to the polls. For another article, I’d like to hear your analysis of Brandon Johnson’s apparently successful challenge to County Cmsr. Boykin, and Anthony Clark’s unsuccessful bid to unseat Rep. Danny K. Davis in 7th district. Other young Black progressive Democrats who ran tough but unsuccessful campaigns for legislative seats were William Calloway , for state rep 25th District, and Willie Preston, state rep 31st district.