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At State Fair, Democrats Paint GOP As Existential Threat Worthy of Keeping United Even As Rifts Divide Party

“Four years ago, Bruce Rauner and his Republican allies in the General Assembly were executing his assault on human services, his assault on unions, his anti-worker agenda, and we beat the hell out of him,” Pritzker told Democrats at the Governor's Day rally on the State Fairgrounds Wednesday.
Hannah Meisel/NPR Illinois
“Four years ago, Bruce Rauner and his Republican allies in the General Assembly were executing his assault on human services, his assault on unions, his anti-worker agenda, and we beat the hell out of him,” Pritzker told Democrats at the Governor's Day rally on the State Fairgrounds Wednesday.

A balmy afternoon on the Illinois State Fairgrounds hosted Democrats from every corner of the state on Wednesday as Gov. JB Pritzker ginned up the crowd of hundreds with a call and response.

“Which party raised the minimum wage to a living wage, lifting hundreds of thousands of working people out of poverty?” Pritzker shouted to a crowd, pointing to his earliest legislative accomplishment after being sworn in as governor in 2019.

“Democrats!” the crowd responded to Pritzker’s coaching from the stage, many in masks despite the 80-plus degree heat.

After listing off several more issues his party takes credit for — including the handling of the COVID-19 pandemic upon which Pritzker is shaping his re-election campaign — Pritzker claimed that “over and over, it’s Democrats who deliver for the people of Illinois.”

He and other Democrats on Wednesday also repeatedly invoked Republicans like former Gov. Bruce Rauner and former President Donald Trump as reminders of the threats they perceive the GOP pose to the nation.

Attorney General Kwame Raoul said though he valued bipartisanship, warned Democrats about what he said Republican attorneys general nationwide wanted to use the legal system to do, like curtail the Affordable Care Act.

"I'm glad to have stood up with my Democrat AG colleagues and we want to fight at the Supreme Court to preserve Obamacare and access to healthcare for all Americans," Raoul said.

With Pritzker in office for the last nearly three years, Democrats have had total control of state government, scoring major legislative wins in his first term and hoping to notch another this year with a new climate and energy law that would get Illinois to 100% clean energy by mid-century.

But on that issue, the party has fractured in Springfield as two of Democrats’ key constituencies — organized labor and environmental activists — have spent the summer mostly at impasse on how to shape Illinois’ energy future.

And an internal fight over how to run the state’s Democratic Party keeps bubbling to the surface, most recently Tuesday afternoon before those same Democrats preached party unity all day Wednesday.

Both intraparty divisions point back to a figure Democrats have spent months trying to move past: former Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan.

But in kicking off Wednesday morning’s massive annual pre-fair brunch, Illinois Democratic County Chair Association President Kristina Zahorik tried to redirect to the present.

“It’s clear we Democrats understand what’s at stake: Government leadership in [times of] crisis. Decisive leadership. Roll up your sleeves leadership. Get your ass to work leadership,” Zahorik said. “That’s what Illinoisans want. And that’s what we do as Democrats in electing our leaders.”

Then Zahorik lightly rebuked media reports about division in Democratic ranks as reporters watched from some 200 yards away.

“Whatever you may read in the press, Democrats in Illinois are united and there’s too much at stake to be divided,” she said.

Energy vote looms

At Wednesday morning’s brunch, the event’s keynote speaker, U.S. Senator Jon Ossoff (D-Ga.) recalled his and fellow U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock’s (D-Ga.) victories in dual runoff races in Georgia in late January. The unexpected wins gave Democrats razor-thin control of the Senate, and Ossoff spoke with urgency about issues his party deems essential, including expanding childcare, cementing voting rights and taking action on climate change.

“Now is the time and our last chance to address climate change and avert environmental disaster, Illinois,” Ossoff said, invoking a recently published United Nations report described by the organization’s secretary general as a “code red for humanity.”

A new climate and energy bill has been in the works in Springfield since 2019, but it’s gained urgency as key deadlines approach in September, including the possible forced refund to ratepayers of $317 million meant for building renewable energy infrastructure, and nuclear giant Exelon’s threats to close at least two unprofitable power plants, beginning next month.

Lawmakers walked away from Springfield in early June without a vote on a climate and energy bill, only to return for a short session two weeks later with the same result. Since then, environmental groups and organized labor have been left to their own devices to work out a deal, but early this month, both sides declared impasse, with unions asking for the governor and lawmakers to step back in.

But Pritzker, who has sided with environmental groups, says he’s done negotiating and has repeatedly in the last few weeks urged lawmakers to take a vote on his energy bill. That proposal would force the shutdown of coal- and natural gas-fired power plants by 2045, or possibly sooner, a key “decarbonization” goal environmental groups and the governor say is the only way to make meaningful progress to stop climate change.

Labor unions who represent workers at municipally owned coal-fired plants in Springfield and Marissa in the Metro East are working to preserve those jobs, and also have demands on issues like applying the state’s prevailing wage standards to all companies in Illinois’ emerging renewable energy industry.

Absent from Wednesday’s festivities was Senate President Don Harmon (D-Oak Park), who earlier this week announced he had a breakthrough case of COVID-19. Harmon has become a lightning rod for environmental groups, who accuse him of holding up the energy deal, though he’s said he’s working on behalf of his Democratic Senate members.

Pritzker on Wednesday reiterated his hard line on decarbonization, stopping by a climate action rally held across the fairgrounds after his appearance rallying the Democratic faithful.

Lt. Gov. Juliana Stratton and Gov. JB Pritzker make a stop at a climate activist rally at the State Fairgrounds on Wednesday.
Hannah Meisel/NPR Illinois
Lt. Gov. Juliana Stratton and Gov. JB Pritzker make a stop at a climate activist rally at the State Fairgrounds on Wednesday.

“Who here believes in fighting climate change?” Pritzker asked in his impromptu speech to activists, whom he thanked for their advocacy. “Your activism…is making sure that we’re building a clean energy economy in Illinois. You guys are making it happen.”

After Pritzker passed her the microphone, Lt. Gov. Juliana Stratton noted to activists that climate change is “also a racial justice issue that disproportionately impacts communities of color and low-income communities” as they held signs urging a vote on the governor’s proposal.

Rev. Tony Pierce, the chair of progressive activism group Illinois People's Action, told NPR Illinois it was "a little disheartening" to see organized labor and environmental groups — along with their allied Democrats — unable to work out an energy deal this summer.

"Well it is somewhat discouraging seeing the division, but I hope to be more encouraged by getting this across the finish line," Pierce said.

Both sides in the energy fight allege the other has injected new issues into negotiations, and leaders in both groups privately say their fight would not have reached such a fever pitch if Madigan were still around to call balls and strikes.

Indeed, managing priorities for Democratic-allied stakeholders while negotiating complex legislation was part of the skillset that kept Madigan in power for decades. But in January, the longtime speaker couldn’t garner enough support for a historic 19th term in the role after federal prosecutors last summer named him “Public Official A” in a years-long bribery scheme carried out by Exelon subsidiary Commonwealth Edison designed to curry favor with Madigan. He has not been charged.

The time period in question includes two massive pieces of legislation moved through Springfield that also regulated utilities and the state’s energy industry, which prompted a paradigm shift in the current negotiations over the energy bill; Democrats on both sides of the fight, and leading Republicans too all point to leaving utilities out of the negotiating room as a net positive.

After a summer marked by climate disasters both at home and abroad, environmental groups feel they have an edge in the argument, but organized labor — who this spring was mostly focused on saving jobs at Exelon’s nuclear plants — are trying to work the same angle. The unions warn that risking the shutdown of those nuclear plants will mean Illinois will have to import dirtier energy to make up for the lost electric generation, as the nuke closures are irreversible.

House Democrats this week were surveyed on their availability to make it back to Springfield the last week of the month for a possible final vote on the bill.

Democratic Party structure

Also dividing Illinois Democrats this summer is how best to run the Democratic Party of Illinois — the party structure left behind by Madigan in February after decades as its chair. The former speaker had for years mostly used the party and its account as a way to build and maintain his majority in the Illinois House, leaving other Democratic candidates and caucuses to form their own campaign architecture.

In the power vacuum left by Madigan when he stepped down, U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) backed U.S. Rep. Robin Kelly (D-Ill.), while Pritzker backed Chicago Ald. Michelle Harris. Concerns over whether Kelly, as a sitting member of congress, would be able to raise so-called “soft money” for state races emerged almost right away, but ultimately Kelly won by a thin margin.

However, unresolved legal questions colored Kelly’s first five months as party chair, and after the Federal Election Commission issued an advisory ruling in the matter last month, the party on Tuesday voted to create a new committee that will oversee fundraising for state and local candidates. But Harmon and House Speaker Chris Welch (D-Hillside) declined to take part in the committee.

Welch was also missing from Democratic celebrations as he was out of town at a conference.

Both Kelly and Pritzker on Wednesday fielded questions about a possible rift between them, especially as Pritzker skipped the morning brunch that had been moved outside after he announced he wouldn’t attend due to COVID concerns. While each was cordial, when asked by NPR Illinois whether he was 100% comfortable contributing money to the state party now, Pritzker declined to answer directly, and instead pointed to his own fundraising effort dubbed “Blue Wave Illinois.”

“There’s an awful lot to look at,” the governor said of the party’s new fundraising structure. “But here’s what I know: We’re all going to be supporting Democrats up and down the ticket.”

Kelly responded to a question about the governor’s absence at the morning event saying “that’s Pritzker’s choice,” after saying legal concerns over her chairmanship should be put to rest, especially because the party’s new structure is based off of the Georgia Democratic party’s format.

“See Ossoff and Warnock? It worked down there, okay?” Kelly told reporters. “Give us a chance…We’re going make sure we stay as blue as we are now, if not bluer.”

Chicago City Clerk Anna Valencia, who is vying to replace longtime Secretary of State Jesse White next year, also defended the new structure.

“We’ve had the same state party chair [since] I think I was still in middle school,” Valencia told reporters. “And so it’s going to take a while — more than a few months — to figure out what that structure is going to look like. I’m not worried about that.”

Wednesday's annual Illinois Democratic County Chairs Brunch -- moved outside this year due to COVID concerns -- boasted about 1,000 attendees, according to event organizers.
Hannah Meisel/NPR Illinois

Secretary of State race

Democrats in the General Assembly this spring pushed through a new election law that, among making it easier to vote through permanently establishing practices like mail-in voting and ballot drop boxes, also pushes back Illinois’ usual mid-March primary date to June 28 next year.

The extra three months and change means less urgency for the only open statewide race on the Democratic ticket: the contest to replace White as secretary of state, who has been in that role since 1999.

Unlike other Democratic leaders on Wednesday, White told reporters he would eventually endorse a candidate to succeed him, likely “sometime in January, not necessarily right now,”

“I have a suspicion that there's more people getting into the race,” he said.

Already, what was originally a five-person race has narrowed to four, with those candidates all addressing Democrats at the pre-fair brunch Wednesday morning.

Alexi Giannoulias, who has already raised far and away the most of any challenger in the race — mostly from organized labor — has already served in statewide office, but stepped away from party politics after losing his bid for U.S. Senate against Republican Mark Kirk in 2012.

In his absence, the party has changed, but he told NPR Illinois on Wednesday he doesn’t “have a strong opinion one way or the other” on what Madigan’s departure will mean for Democrats in Illinois.

“Today’s about unity, bringing people together,” Giannoulias said. “Fundamentally, we all believe in the same things. All families argue and I think everything will get hashed out eventually.”

But that party unity did not extend to Giannoulias himself, as his opponents — Valencia and Chicago Alds. Pat Dowell and David Moore — all spent part of their speeches to take digs at the former state treasurer for once endorsing a Republican over now-Treasurer Mike Frerichs in the 2014 race for that job. Giannoulias this summer downplayed the endorsement as “just saying good things” about then-House GOP Leader Tom Cross (R-Oswego).

Republicans will hold their own day of celebrations and speeches on Thursday.

Hannah covers state government and politics for Capitol News Illinois. She's been dedicated to the statehouse beat since interning at NPR Illinois in 2014, with subsequent stops at WILL-AM/FM, Law360, Capitol Fax and The Daily Line before returning to NPR Illinois in 2020 and moving on to CNI in 2023.