News Local/State

Democrats: United Against Rauner, Fighting Over Senate

Democrats rallied at the Illinois State Fair on Thursday, Aug. 20, 2015.

Democrats rallied at the Illinois State Fair on Thursday, Aug. 20, 2015. (Photo: Brian Mackey/WUIS)

Illinois Democrats say they're in an "epic" struggle with the state's new Republican governor. The party met in Springfield Thursday for its annual fundraising breakfast and State Fair rally.

Brian Mackey reports on Democrat Day at the Illinois State Fair.

The afternoon rally began with a tongue-in-cheek thank-you to Gov. Bruce Rauner.

"Why am I here to thank Bruce Rauner?" asked state Rep. Lou Lang, from Skokie. "Look around you — the Democratic Party has never been as energized or as organized as it is right now."

What Democrats say they're organizing around — or more accurately against — is Rauner's "Turnaround Agenda." His wish list includes giving businesses a better shot at defending against lawsuits, making companies pay less to take care of injured workers, and limiting how many times people can run for election to the Illinois House and Senate.

Rauner says it's a recipe for improving Illinois' business climate, and argues it'd lead to a stronger economy. But the Turnaround Agenda also seeks to do something else — something the governor doesn't talk about as much — namely diminishing the rights and power of organized labor.

And for Democrats, who've had a decades-long relationship with the labor movement, they believe that's a fight they cannot afford to lose.

"Speaking of bullies," Chicago City Clerk Susana Mendoza told the breakfast meeting, "our friends in organized labor are under attack. And they're not just under threat — they're under threat of annihilation by Gov. Rauner."

Many other speakers echoed that sentiment, including Congresswoman Tammy Duckworth ("The assault on organized labor — around the country, but especially here in Illinois — must end") and state Treasurer Mike Frerichs ("We stand with working men and women in the fight for good wages").

Senate President John Cullerton said Democrats were open to compromise with the governor — to an extent. "We are willing to work with Gov. Rauner, but we don't work for Gov. Rauner," Cullerton said.

But Democrats are not completely united on everything. Two men and two women made it known they're running — or at least considering a run — for U.S. Senate. The winner of the primary will face incumbent Republican Sen. Mark Kirk, who's up for his first re-election fight.

Duckworth has been the choice of party officials in D.C.: "I'm proud to be from Illinois. And I'm sick and tired of people talking our state down. And I'm sick and tired of the governor putting our state down and our hardworking families down."

Andrea Zopp, the former head of the Chicago Urban League, touted her family history. She says her father served in World War II and went to college on the G.I. Bill, "and that opportunity that my parents had that enabled me to succeed, that so many of your parents have had that have enabled you to succeed, is declining. That door to opportunity is closing."

Party members also heard from a pair of men who say they're still considering a run. First-term Cook County Commissioner Richard Boykin says he's just the fresh face voters crave: "What I'm saying to you today, my fellow Democrats, is that the people of Illinois are fed up. And again, they will not be fooled in this election."

Second-term state state Sen. Napoleon Harris says his background makes him uniquely qualified: "Looking at my mom struggle, standing in welfare lines — the same social service and the same safety net that this governor is trying to cut today. I'm a product of that. I know what it feels like to be hungry. ... I'm not telling you what somebody else told me to say. I'm telling you what I lived."

Illinois is expected to have one of the most hotly contested U.S. Senate races next year. But the primary is still months away.

For Democrats and Republicans alike — with no end in sight to the grinding budget and policy standoff — local matters are likely to be foremost on their minds.