Illinois gubernatorial and congressional races have big national consequences
History might be made tomorrow if Lauren Underwood, an African American nurse, wins her bid for a seat in Congress from Illinois. | John Konstantaras/AP

CHICAGO -— What can you buy for more than a quarter of a billion dollars?

How about the Illinois governor’s chair, where Democratic nominee J.B. Pritzker, incumbent Republican Bruce Rauner and the candidates they beat in the state’s earlier primary have combined to spend $272.2 million. And that was as of Sept. 30.

It’s only the most-expensive statewide election in U.S. history.

All that money, most of it from the pockets of Hyatt Hotels scion Pritzker ($161.5 million) and hedge fund multimillionaire Rauner ($67.8 million), is likely to produce a Pritzker win Nov. 6, pre-election polls predict. They consistently show him leading the governor, whose 4-year reign has been a disaster for state finances and a constant war on workers, by between 15 and 20 percentage points.

J.B. Pritzker, expected to win the governor’s race in Illinois. | Jose M. Osorio/AP

Rauner not only trails Pritzker in the polls but also trailed him in a recent debate, the Will County Labor Record reported. “Pritzker held Rauner accountable for his four years of destruction and devastation, as the failed governor desperately attempted to distract from his crisis-driven agenda,” Pritzker campaign manager Anna Caprara told the paper.

That Rauner agenda included trying to break AFSCME District Council 31 and other unions for state and local government workers, both through his budget – he refused to sign one for three years, forcing the state into missing payments and “junk bond” status — and a vital lawsuit.

Rauner was the original plaintiff in the infamous Janus case, where the U.S. Supreme Court’s GOP majority made every state and local government worker nationwide a potential “free rider,” able to use union services without paying one red cent for them. Janus, and Rauner were part of the right wing’s campaign to “de-fund the left” by bankrupting and emasculating unions.

As a result, there was never any question that organized labor statewide would back Rauner’s Democratic foe. Despite the Hyatt chain’s problems with Unite Here’s hotel workers nationwide, the state AFL-CIO decided early to choose Pritzker, who could self-fund his campaign, which he has. Even the Fraternal Order of Police, never known for progressive leanings – or working with unions – endorsed Pritzker.

Meanwhile, Rauner, who barely beat a Trumpite state legislator, running from his right, in the GOP primary, spent his time in Springfield vetoing pro-worker measures left and right – including a raise for teachers — and pushing so-called right-to-work laws.

He failed spectacularly in that: When he tried to get the legislature to allow local governments to enact their own RTW ordinances, the Democratic-run State Senate shot his scheme down, 71-0 – including one dissident Republican. The 32 other GOPers abstained.

“Rauner’s cynical anti-worker agenda is best highlighted by his position on the minimum wage,” retired

Illinois Education Association activist Tom Suhrbur told The Labor Paper of Peoria. “Prior to running for office, he supported repeal of all minimum wage laws.” Once in the governor’s chair, Rauner proposed raising the state’s current $8.25 minimum to $10 – in 25-cent yearly hikes over seven years. He got “mocking laughter” from the General Assembly, Suhrbur said.

The Pritzker-Rauner battle has, to some extent, overshadowed four shaky GOP-held U.S. House seats, two in suburban DuPage County and two downstate. If Democrats win all four, that could help efforts to create a pro-worker U.S. House majority, as opposed to the current GOP hard-right anti-worker tilt. The Illinois races, all toss-ups or tilting slightly Republican, are:

12th District: This was traditionally a pro-labor Democratic seat, covering East St. Louis and surrounding Madison and St. Clair Counties. But it’s had to expand and turned GOP four years ago, as then-state lawmaker Mike Bost (R) won. Now St. Clair State’s Attorney Brendan Kelly, with strong labor support from the COPE committees downstate, is campaigning to take it back.

Bost recently charged in campaign ads that Kelly is “a liberal” and “soft” on prosecuting sexual harassment and assault cases. Independent fact-checkers branded the ads as lies, the St. Louis Labor Tribune reported. Kelly said the ads showed Bost is desperate and an assault victim said the ads lied about how Kelly prosecuted her case – and helped her.

And Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., the civil rights icon, told a crowd in St. Louis that Kelly’s election would be part of an effort “to save our country…not for ourselves, but for our children and their children and generations yet unborn,” the paper reported.

13th District: This is another traditional pro-Democratic district – “Little Egypt” of Cairo and northwards – that turned Republican as it expanded due to population losses and redistricting. Long held by Reps. Ken Gray and the late Paul Simon, it’s now occupied by GOP Rep. Rodney Davis, with Democrat Betsy Londrigan trying to unseat him. The two are virtually equal in raising and spending for their campaigns: Each raised $3 million, with Davis outspending Londrigan $2.22 million-$1.92 million.

Londrigan, a co-founder of Women Rising – a group that aims to get more women to run for office – and a former aide to Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., is running to expand and improve health care and for other progressive issues. She also emphasizes Davis’s repeated votes, kowtowing to GOP dogma, to destroy the Affordable Care Act and its coverage for people with pre-existing conditions, and his vote for GOP President Donald Trump’s tax cut for the rich. That particularly resonates in Little Egypt, hard-hit in both jobs and pay for workers by the collapse of coal mining firms.

Ten unions, led by the Laborers and the Government Employees, who have a large presence in a VA hospital and at several military facilities, have endorsed Londrigan. So has the state fed.

14th District: This district, which includes part of once-solidly Republican DuPage County, but which also includes Elgin and other western Chicago suburbs, has a chance to make history by electing a

young African-American woman nurse, Lauren Underwood (D) over GOP incumbent Randy Hultgren.

Underwood stresses her healthcare experience, as both an RN and a health care policy wonk in the Obama administration and in running her own health-care non-profit group. She’s drawn support from progressives as well as the party establishment.  Obama’s Vice President, Joe Biden, recently campaigned for her.

“As a career public servant at HHS, Lauren helped implement the Affordable Care Act — broadening access for those on Medicare, improving healthcare quality and reforming private insurance,” her bio adds. “During a swimming lesson when she was 8 years old, Lauren discovered she had a heart condition, supraventricular tachycardia, which occasionally prevents her heart from maintaining a normal rhythm. The providers that helped Lauren through her initial treatment made a lasting impression and inspired her career in nursing. As an American with a pre-existing condition, Lauren understands the real-life importance of quality, affordable health care for working families and their children.”

6th District: This is the DuPage County district, which it now extends into Chicago’s other northern and northwestern “collar counties.” In a normal year, incumbent Rep. Peter Roskam (R) would coast to re-election in a district whose lineal ancestor turf elected one Democrat to Congress – for two years – since the mid-1930s.

But this is not a normal year and DuPage, once the big bastion of Illinois GOP politics, is changing. Hillary Clinton, a DuPage native, carried it by 14.5 percent in 2016 – a larger margin than Barack Obama gained there in either presidential race. So Roskam is in a toss-up tilt against Democrat Sean Casten, president of a clean energy company.

Ballotpedia reports Casten emphasizes his clean energy expertise, “saying it allows him to understand the importance of creating clean energy jobs for the economy and the environment.He also ties Roskam – who had a reputation of working across the aisle when he was a state legislator – to Trump. Trump, adds Casten, “threatens science, women’s rights, affordable healthcare, Social Security, and Medicare.”

Roskam calls Casten “corrupt,” ties him to the remnants of the Chicago Democratic machine and touts his vote for the Trump-GOP tax cut for the rich, even though it hurts his own constituents through the $10,000 cap on deductions for state and local taxes.

The latest poll shows Casten with a 46 percent-44 percent lead, within the margin of error. Roskam raised $5.9 million as of Sept. 30 and spent 80 percent of it, while Casten raised $4.7 million and spent around 80 percent of that, with both buying expensive ads in the Chicago media market.


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.