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A Conversation With Sam McCann - Conservative Party Nominee For Illinois Gov.

Rachel Otwell / NPR Illinois
Sam McCann

Sam McCann is a man on a mission: to see Republican Governor Bruce Rauner end his reign in 2019. He's taking that head on, by running for the state's highest office himself, under the self-established Conservative Party banner.

McCann, a state Senator from Plainview, says unlike Rauner he's a proud supporter of President Donald Trump, and a genuine supporter of social conservative values. He points to the close race between Rauner and State Rep. Jeanne Ives in the Republican primary as being indicative of divides within the party in the state.

NPR Illinois sat down with McCann to explore his platform and responses to criticisms, like the alleged misuse of campaign dollars.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

State Rep. Jeanne Ives lost the Republican primary. She came within single-digit percentage points though to winning - which was much closer than many had anticipated. She was outspoken as a social conservative, something you're also identifying as. How does her near success and your campaign speak to a divide in the Republican Party in Illinois?

I think there's obviously a divide in the Republican party. That showcases it perfectly, and I think anyone in the Republican party realized it before that and realizes it now. Gov. Rauner unfortunately decided to purchase a party prior to running for governor in 2014. He had historically voted as a Democrat, but he knew that the Democratic Party was probably too strong in Illinois to purchase outrightly. So he decided to buy the Republican Party because he knew he could buy it at a fire sale price.

And what that's done is it's divided the party even further. The Republican Party was just starting to get its sea legs when he came along. And now this deep division is going to make the Republican Party even weaker.

But that being said, that's one of the reasons I decided to run as a third party and form the new Conservative Party, because I have been there for nearly eight years. When I ran in 2010, I term-limited myself. I said I would serve no more than eight to 10 years in the Senate and at the end of this term will be eight years. So I'm a man of my word. I'm term limiting myself. I have been there for nearly eight years and I can tell you, with firsthand knowledge, that neither party really cares all that much about the people of Illinois. Each party exists for the same reason, and that is to amass more and more power. Amass it and retain it for the sake of party power, and not for the sake of giving the power to the people.

You and the Governor have had a storied relationship. He spent some $3,000,000 in efforts to unseat you in 2016. Anyone watching the first televised debate could hear the tension between you two. Why do you believe your relationship with the Governor has been so contentious? And why do you believe you've been targeted?

Well, I think it boils down to, I've stood up for conservative values, social and fiscal conservative values. So on the fiscal side, the budget stalemate, the state of Illinois not having a budget state budget for two years, that was not fiscally prudent. We actually spent over a billion dollars in finance charges and interest. That's money out the window. Those dollars could have been used to pave roads, build bridges, keep social services flowing. We've had a ton of dental practices close up as a result of the budget stalemate. So whether it's fiscal or social, the governor is no Republican, he's no conservative. And so I think our disagreements over the years stems from the fact that he's in the wrong party.

The Governor claims that you are being used by House Speaker Mike Madigan, a Democrat, as a pawn in this election. And third-party candidates are often criticized for the so-called stealing of votes. Gov. Rauner seems to think that is your sole function in this election.

First and foremost, that's an outright lie on his part and he knows it. I'm in this to win it. I'm not being financed or backed by Mike Madigan or the Democrats. I don't know Mike Madigan. I've met the man twice that I recall. Both times we had conversations where we both left holding true to our beliefs. I tried to convince him to see it my way. He tried to convince me to see it his way. We both ended up leaving those two brief meetings believing what we believe. I held to my beliefs. He held to his beliefs. I really don't know the man. It's probably been several years since I've even spoken to him. And again, I've only spoken to him twice that I can recall. That being said, one of the reasons I didn't run in the primary is that I know that the only way a conservative, a downstate conservative, is going to win the governorship of Illinois is in a situation that we have right now.

This is a perfect storm for a downstate conservative to become the next governor of Illinois. If I would have won the primary, I would have had to have faced a very strong Democratic nominee as a downstate white male conservative. It would've been difficult to have won that race, especially in this blue wave. We have a four-way race. I think it's essentially a three-way race, but technically a four-way race. And I've really believed that instead of having to run to the middle, we're going to be able to run on what we believe and what we proudly believe. And I believe that the first person to get to 34, 35, 36% is going to be the next governor of Illinois.

I know from looking at the polling that both the Democrat and the Republican have high negatives. And they have very low positives. The people of Illinois are looking for a solution. They're looking for something outside the box and I believe that's us. We will bring leadership to the state of Illinois and that's what the state needs. It needs a leader, not another politician.

More broadly, what are some of the top issues facing the state right now that you're most concerned with?

I think the number one top issue that faces the state of Illinois today is that it's controlled by the two major parties which each seek to win the next election and amass that power. Neither one of them really sees the value in leadership. They are in this to win the next election, not to make the next generation stronger. There's no reason for them to work with one another. So I believe that the number one issue facing the state is this gridlock between the two parties. And that's one of the reasons I'm running and running as a third party. I'm not going to go there to necessarily just get reelected or to amass power for one major party or the other. It will be to bring people together and move forward with consensus from a conservative viewpoint.

You've established the Conservative Party. Tell us a little bit more about how you decided to start that and what exactly your major platforms are.

I would say for anyone who identifies as a conservative, they know exactly where we're coming from. And that is many people in Illinois and across the country identify as conservative and they say that the Republican Party is the closest thing to their values and viewpoints. The problem is, is that the Republican Party keeps electing people in Illinois who don't pay attention to the platform. They either ignore it, or they try to cover it up, or they run from it, or they try to change it. So the Conservative Party of Illinois would be simply copy and paste the Republican platform. That would be our platform.

The difference is we believe in it. We stand for it, we stand on it and we run on it. We're proud of it.

Rauner has been not been quick to speak for or against positions that President Donald Trump has. Would you be willing to speak outright for or against the President? Would you want to work closer with the federal government compared to Rauner?

Yeah. First and foremost, I proudly voted for Donald Trump for president. I supported him vocally and verbally in his election efforts. I've voted for him on election day. Not because he's a perfect person. He's not perfect. I'm not perfect. You're not perfect. None of us are perfect. But the principles and the values that he stands for are the principles and values that will rebuild the country and will help rebuild this state.

So I look forward to being elected on November 6th and working in concert with President Trump and his administration to make Illinois stronger. One of the ways that we can do that: all parties can sit at the table together with the President and his administration for a capital bill with an infrastructure plan. There's no way that we can address the hundreds of billions of dollars of infrastructure needs that need to be dealt with in Illinois without partnering with the federal government. 

I'll work in concert with the congressional delegation from Illinois and the Trump administration to get a handle on the violence in Chicago and around the state and to get a handle on our infrastructure needs and to work together.  

Both Pritzker and Rauner claimed that they don't want to work with the President. Rauner has essentially ran from the President and Pritzker denounces him. How can the people of Illinois expect to get what's due to them? How can we expect to have a full seat at the table when we have a governor who refuses to work with the president of the United States? I look forward to working with President Trump and we will get things done.

So some voters may be concerned about certain aspects of your past, including campaign funds used for travel in early 2016. There was a complaint filed with the Illinois State Board of Elections claiming that you had given yourself too much money from your campaign for mileage reimbursement. And then back about a year ago a similar issue came up regarding your purchasing of a certain vehicle for a little over $60,000. 

You're always going to have critics. We won in 2010, 2012 and 2016 for the state Senate. I ran against a lady who, she and her husband had held the seat before me for nearly 40 years. They had all the power, all the name ID, all the money, all the endorsements, all the recognition. And people said we couldn't win. And we did. And the way we won in 2010 against all of that was by being out there, boots on the ground, seven days a week with the people.

And the people knew it didn't matter what the commercial said. It didn't matter what my opponent said. They knew it because they had met me. They had seen me. In 2012 we faced a bitter primary and in 2016 an even more bitter primary. And again, we won those being outspent and outmaneuvered in all of the traditional political ways. But because we were constantly, seven days a week, 52 weeks a year, boots on the ground, going to events, attending events all over the district, all over the state, people knew better than to listen to that nonsense.

So that complaint that you're talking about was totally dismissed as frivolous by the state board of elections, totally dismissed. They realized that it was nothing more than a political ploy. And when it comes to that vehicle that was bought, that wasn't bought for me. That belongs to the campaign. And so when the day comes that I'm no longer serving in political office, or I'm no longer running for political office, that vehicle will be put on the auction block, sold at auction. And those funds will be returned to the campaign fund and disposed of a per the rules with the state board of elections.

So there was nothing wrong with it. It's just political maneuvering by political opposition to try to paint a cloud, a black cloud over us. I'm very proud of the fact that I campaign in the style that I campaign in. While my opponents are sitting back coming up with these weird accusations like this, I'm out there meeting people, answering the tough questions and the people have rewarded me with victory three times.

Let's shift focus here if we can to unions. You've been a supporter and in 2015 you voted to override Gov. Rauner's veto of a bill on union arbitration and you aligned with AFSCME. Why do you support unions?

I'm for working people first and foremost. I am pro-business and pro-labor. When I was first started running in 1009 for the 2010 election I was interviewed on the radio and the interviewer asked me, he said, Mr. MCcann, are you pro-business or are you pro-labor? My response was, in my opinion, the only logical response. And that is, I'm for both.

We have to have a labor component that has strength and has the ability to bargain and has the ability to make a decent living and acquire the American dream. And so I'm pro-business and pro-labor. I'm for all working people, whether you're union or nonunion public sector or private sector, blue collar or white collar. I'm for working people. And I believe that regardless of whether you're in a union or not, unions have over the years made working conditions better.

They've created wealth for the working class. And if unions were to go away we would lose a lot. We've already lost a lot of ground, quite frankly, in the United States of America. When a third of Americans were organized and bargaining collectively in the fifties and sixties and early seventies, we had a much stronger climate for working people.

The working class had better access to the American dream. Today when it's about one in 10, we have the income disparity that we all see, that we all know exists. And so even for folks who aren't in unions, they benefit from that.

I'm a carpenter by trade. I was not a union carpenter, but I knew that benefits and my wages were better because the unions existed, so I want to make very clear. I'm not for the unions in the sense that I'm for the big letters on a banner. I'm for the members of the union. I'm for the working people themselves so that they can advance because I think as we as they advance, we all advance.

Some have pointed to the fact that you and the Democratic candidate for governor, J.B. Pritzker, have received campaign contributions from the same union. Although we know it's not uncommon for campaign contributions to go to more than one party. What would you say to people point to that as an example of you working in concert with the Democrats?

I think what folks need to look at our history and look at what's going on currently. Here in the state of Illinois, we have a House, we have a Senate, we have Republican campaign organizations in both chambers. I believe that that Operating Engineers they've done a dual endorsement. 

In this instance, they said to their members, if you're a more liberal member and you want, here's who we recommend you vote for for governor. If you're a more conservative member, we recommend that you vote for McCann for governor. And so they have actually followed the lead of what conservatives have asked for for years and years.

Right now that same union is, is helping in House races and Senate races, races across Illinois. Senator Bill Brady, the leader of the Senate Republican Caucus, and Jim Durkin, the leader of the House Republican Caucus, they are taking dollars. They're taking dollars and their members are taking dollars from the same organizations.

Jeanne Ives took money, thousands of dollars from the same organization. So as you pointed out, Rachel, it's always been a situation in Illinois and across the country, quite frankly, where unions support people who support working people. And they have supported Republicans and conservatives in the past. They are supporting conservatives and Republicans in today's races. And I think folks need to open their eyes and not allow to these narratives to be created by liars like Rauner.

We hear a lot about campaign finance reform. This is going to be historically the most expensive race for governor. And you're working with far less money here. We're living in a post-Citizens United sort of era where money equals free speech and the campaign contribution limits have been blown open, obviously, with the governor's race. Do you believe reforms are needed when it comes to campaign finance? And if so, how?

Yeah, I definitely believe reforms are needed nationally and here in the state. I believe that Citizens United is quite possibly the greatest threat to our republic today because of the concept of saying that dollar bills equal citizens, equal human beings is a dangerous place to go. And that's what the Citizens United ruling does. It says that dollar bills equal human beings and that is dangerous.

It's interesting that that's essentially the debate that Jefferson and Hamilton were having 200 plus years ago, and interestingly enough, Hamilton was the one who said dollar bills should have influence, and now he has a play written in his honor and being performed in his honor.

We've been having this debate for hundreds of years in this country and up until Citizens United there were some safeguards in place, but with that Citizens United ruling, here we are and it's not a good place to be. In Illinois, if you self-fund, once you bust the limits, there are no limits. So what that does is it incentivizes people like Rauner and Pritzker, the billionaire class to get in a race, immediately write themselves a check for something in excess of the limits and they bust the caps and then no ordinary person they ever has an opportunity to really run at least on a level playing field.

We need to have honest and open conversations if we're ever going to have really honest and open elections instead of auctions, we're going to have to get a handle on this.

I want to go back to some of the social conservative issues you've been fighting for. You and Gov. Rauner butted heads over his signing, in particular, of two measures, one on immigration and another on abortion. One limits the amount law enforcement works with federal immigration officials and then the other, HB 40, expanded abortion coverage to be covered by state health insurance and Medicaid. You're now sponsoring a measure that would repeal HB 40. Tell us about those key issues and why you feel so strongly about them.

When regards to HB 40, that's the abortion issue. That's the taxpayer funding of abortion on demand. I voted no on that in the Senate and I can't tell you how many people came to me either in person, on the street, via telephone, via email and said, you know Sam, I'm pro-choice and I don't agree with it.

It's not only the pro-life people who don't agree with HB 40. It's amazing how many pro-choice people who are moderates and don't agree with it. They don't believe that there should be abortion on demand, discretionary abortion on demand, paid for by the taxpayers. That's just not the message that we need to be sending. That's not the practice that we need to implement.

And so I definitely disagree with him on that issue.  There is a plank that says that the Republicans are going to be pro-life. That's definitely not a pro-life stance to take. He also lied about it. He told the people of Illinois in his first campaign that he was a social liberal, but he wouldn't have a social agenda, that he just wanted to get the fiscal house in order.

And here we are four years later and the fiscal house is even weaker and shakier than it was when he came to office, because of him. He's the most progressive liberal governor the state of Illinois has ever had. So obviously I disagree with him on that issue.

And then on the, on the sanctuary state issue, it is interesting to me that we have what's going on in the state of Illinois. We have out-migration of people who are trying to make a living for their families. We have people coming to Illinois because the word on the street is this is a good place to come to if you're looking to get on the dole. We have the gang violence that's causing the record numbers of murders in Chicago-land and what does the governor want to do? He wants to bring more lawlessness to the state.  He's saying, come here, we're going to welcome you. If you're an illegal immigrant, we have a place for you here. That's reprehensible.

I'm going to switch focus here to some of the challenges there are for third parties to get on the ballot in the first place, and get their name out there in front of voters. You said that you filed over 60,000 signatures, which was well over the 25,000 signatures needed. But that's common practice as those signatures are often contested. So is the process for getting on the ticket as a third party fair in your eyes?

It is definitely not fair. I do believe the threshold should be higher for third parties than they are for major parties because if you're not a major party then you don't participate in a primary. So if you get to skip the primary and go straight to the general, then I understand that the threshold should be somewhat higher than it would be otherwise for a major party candidacy.

So for the Democrats and the Republicans, they had to come up with a minimum of 5,000. They typically submit 10,000. For a third party it's 25,000 minimum. So five times the number. I guess I could understand one and a half times the number, two times the number, but five times the number for a third party? We both know why it's set up that way. And the reason it's set up that way is because the Democrats and Republicans are in control and they want to make it exponentially more difficult for third party candidates to even get on the ballot there.

Are you getting the impression that now is a time where there might be some more open minds out there when it comes to third parties? That was something Kash Jackson said. Are you seeing people who maybe are not pleased with either of their options otherwise?

Most definitely. I think people understand the gravity of the situation. I think by and large, as long as things are going halfway decently with public policy, as long as the budget is balanced or close to balanced, the people may not agree with all the exact line item spending. But when things are going okay, people are probably are really fixated on taking care of what's in front of them that day and probably only making a binary choice between Republicans and Democrats.

But I think the folks, especially here in Illinois, people understand that this is for all the marbles, that we have structurally had our challenges, especially over the last 20 years. We're still arguing about the same old problems and we're still losing population. We don't have spending power. We don't have the opportunity in Illinois that the rest of the nation is enjoying. 

I don't know exactly what's going to happen. But I do know from what I have heard from the people on the street that I talk to every day, they are crying out for leadership. And they're looking to hire someone to be the next governor of Illinois who will lead and who has answers and he will get things done.

And so we talked about the obstacle as far as getting on the ballot and the number of signatures needed. Another issue probably is just visibility and getting covered by the media. Both you and the Libertarian nominee for governor were part of the first televised debate. What's your take on inclusion and do you understand at all the times that you're left out?

I think the way I look at it, just the way I think most people around the state looking at it, there are only four people running for governor. There's four people on the ballot. Why would we exclude anyone from that debate stage?

I think most of us are bumfuzzled as to why the League of Women Voters, who claim to stand for access and vote your values and vote your principles, why they would introduce something like this 10% percent threshold when there's only four people running for governor, and NBC only had a 5% threshold. Something just doesn't smell right here.

Alright, I got one more issue to speak to. Legalizing recreational marijuana is something J.B. Pritzker, for instance, has made part of his platform. We know Libertarians generally approve of pretty much full access to recreational marijuana and Kash Jackson falls in line with that. What are your thoughts as far as the state moving toward that in the next four years?

I think we need to recognize the fact that the federal government still says that recreational use of marijuana is a federal crime and that supersedes state law and supersedes municipal law. And so all of these states and municipalities across the country that have adopted recreational marijuana, they don't have the authority to do that. The Obama administration turned a blind eye to it. So far the Trump administration has turned a blind eye to it, but if one day this president or the future president and his Attorney General decide to no longer turn a blind eye to it, federal marshals will descend on those municipalities and those states and in about 48 hours, a lot of things are gonna change.

And so I think as long as the federal government says that it's a federal crime, I don't think any state or municipality should be "legalizing" it because I don't believe they really can.

And then just finally, what are some of your key hopes and goals regarding the future of the state?

It's about rebuilding the state of Illinois and I know that sounds like a campaign theme and of course, that is the theme of our campaign, rebuilding Illinois together. And so nothing needs rebuilt more than Illinois. And there's only one way to rebuild it. And that is together. It's to stop the bickering during the legislative process, is to stop the nonsense of the campaign cycle. And it's to get into actually developing sound public policy that advances the opportunities for the people of Illinois.

And so I have made a commitment that if I don't have all the past due bills, so everything that's considered a past due bill, if we don't have that paid down to a 30 day payment cycle, because 30 days is what the rest of the world operates on, that's what Illinois should operate on. If all of our past due bills aren't paid down to a 30-day payment cycle, I will not even come to the people of Illinois and ask to be reelected. I'm making that pledge and quite frankly, my focus is not on four years from now and getting reelected. My focus is on fixing the state, working with the legislature, working with the people of Illinois to fix the state. And so maybe what the state needs is a good one-term governor who isn't afraid to lead, and I will not be afraid to lead. I will go there and lead the state of Illinois. I won't have to ask Mike Madigan for permission either.

Rachel Otwell of the Illinois Times is a former NPR Illinois reporter.
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