SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) — One out of every five Illinois legislators taking the oath of office next winter will be new to the General Assembly. Thirty lawmakers, many worn down by years of skirmishing between Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner and Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan over state finances — and just about everything else — have retired or will not stand for re-election in November.
Legislative candidates sense that, and while November has long promised a referendum on Rauner v. Madigan, many distancing themselves from those established mantles.
But first comes the March 20 primary in an election year that is showing divisiveness, even within the parties.
“I love my state and my city and I really want to see some independent leadership,” said Anne Shaw, a businesswoman who’s one of four women seeking the Democratic nomination for an open Chicago House seat. “I’ve seen funding for our neighborhood schools go down, gun violence go up. … I am really tired of business as usual.”
Madigan, the longest-serving state House speaker in U.S. history, has long been in the crosshairs of Republicans with a longevity-breeds-corruption theme. That tenure has come into question even among Democrats in recent weeks amid allegations that he mishandled complaints of sexual harassment by political campaign workers.
Five Democratic hopefuls, including four women, wanting an open northwest Cook County seat have made the race a Madigan litmus test, targeting sexual harassment in the workplace and focusing criticism on one candidate, human rights lawyer Jennifer Gong-Gershowitz, for taking $65,000 from Madigan campaign accounts and challenging her to return the money because of the brewing controversy. Gong-Gershowitz said at a candidate forum that she is “beholden to nothing other than values.”
The sexual-harassment issue is playing out in a big way in a four-way race for Chicago Democratic Sen. Ira Silverstein’s seat. An ethics officer found that the 19-year Senate veteran had acted unprofessionally in personal interaction with a legislative activist he was working with, but did not harass her. Silverstein said he’s received a “favorable response” from voters and his campaign is “moving on.” His opponents differ.
Ram Villivalam, a union leader who has raised $175,000 to Silverstein’s $236,000, said voters “need someone effective, someone proactive,” adding that after the harassment complaint, “I knew that he could not be effective moving forward.”
Rauner’s moderate stands on conservative touchstones — he signed laws to provide public financing of abortion and to restrict police involvement with immigrants unless armed with a criminal warrant — drew a direct primary challenge from Rep. Jeanne Ives, a Republican from Wheaton. While few of her colleagues have endorsed her, few have outright announced opposition.
And conservative money has poured into races in districts where maverick GOP House members jumped ship last summer to help Democrats overturn Rauner’s veto of an income-tax increase. Anti-tax candidates have benefited from $2.7 million in independent expenditures by Liberty Principles Political Action Committee, a former Rauner backer, according to Kent Redfield of the nonpartisan campaign finance tracker Illinois Sunshine.
Liberty Principles-backed winners won’t win House control from Democrats whose majority is 67-51. But, Redfield said, “they will make the House Republican caucus more conservative and more independent of the governor and his money.”
Liberty Principles’ anger over the tax increase extends to a primary challenge to House Minority Leader Jim Durkin, a Western Springs Republican. He didn’t join the Democrats on a tax-increase override, but took conservatives’ blame for not holding his caucus defiantly together. Asked whether his race against Burr Ridge Mayor Michael “Mickey” Straub is a referendum on Durkin’s support for Rauner, Durkin’s campaign manager Kyle Haevers said it’s about the GOP wresting control of the House from Democrats who have delivered to taxpayers “crushing debt.” Haevers would not comment on Liberty Principles’ support for Straub. Straub did not respond to a request for comment.
One Liberty Principles ad in southwestern Illinois has raised the ire of the incumbent target, Rep. Charles Meier, a Republican farmer from Okawville who represents the Illinois suburbs of St. Louis. Meier initially voted for the tax increase, spurring Madison County Board member Don Moore of Troy to challenge him.
In the ad, an actor portraying a hog farmer says the hardest decision on a farm is “when to put a heifer down. I’m not mad at the heifer, it’s just no longer the animal you once knew.” The farmer says he likes “the Charlie I used to know, but I can’t afford Springfield Charlie.”
“Moore wants me shot or chemically put down,” Meier said. “I’ve got a group from Chicago calling me to be put out of my misery. I have a problem with that.”
Moore dismissed the complaint, saying the ad “has nothing to do with putting Charlie down.”