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Working In These Times

Wednesday, Mar 19, 2014, 7:52 pm

Many Disappointments for Labor in Illinois Primaries, With One Bright Spot

BY David Moberg

Will Guzzardi, center, celebrates his state representative victory at the Logan Auditorium amid a crowd of supporters, many sporting CTU shirts or SEIU pins. (Photo from Will Guzzardi campaign)  

Illinois unions faced a hazardous field of candidates in Illinois’ primary election contests on Tuesday, and most of the key races did not go their way—except for one, progressive Will Guzzardi’s victory in the 39th district.

In the biggest blow to unions, anti-labor hedge-fund operator Bruce Rauner emerged victorious in the Republican gubernatorial primary. He will face off against incumbent Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn in the general election. Rauner campaigned to eliminate not only state pensions and other gains won by public sector unions, but also public sector unionism itself. Although it’s not clear whether he can do so unilaterally as governor, he made clear he would try to emulate the anti-union actions of Republican governors of neighboring states, such as Scott Walker in Wisconsin and Mitch Daniels in Indiana.

While they may fear Rauner, unions also have reason to want to shake up Illinois’ Democratic status quo. Legislative leaders, especially House Speaker Michael Madigan, have pushed bills to cut state workers’ pensions and to undermine the Chicago Teachers Union. Three Democratic primaries for the House—in the 26th district, 39th district, and 40th district—presented opportunities for a challenger backed by a progressive labor-community alliance to upset an incumbent.

Fragmented movements

But in all three cases, that alliance was fractured, and the results were mixed. In the 40th district, where the incumbent, Jaime Andrade, is the choice of a ward organization with its roots in the old Democratic political machine, unions split their support between two of his four challengers. Andrade won.

The Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) strongly backed community organizer Jhatayn “Jay” Travis’s bid for state representative in the 26th district, which stretches along a South Side lakefront. Travis was seeking to unseat incumbent Democrat Christian Mitchell, who promotes himself as a progressive but angered unions by voting for cuts to state workers' pensions and against a moratorium on school closings. 

Travis came close, with 47.4 percent of the vote. That's especially surprising given that Mitchell is the protégé of one of the more popular political figures in the state, Cook County Board president Toni Preckwinkle, and vastly outspent Travis. Mitchell raised more than $600,000, mainly from Stand for Children (a pro-charter school group); the Democratic Majority Fund (run by powerful Speaker Michael Madigan); We Mean Business, a business fund advocating cutting pensions (to which Rauner contributes), and several other rich individuals and businesses. Most of Travis’s big contribution came from the CTU and other unions, but she received less than one-sixth of Mitchell’s total. Mitchell also peeled off some progressive organizations, such as the Sierra Club. Money and connections, combined with the progressive veil over much of Mitchell’s activities, gave him a narrow edge. Travis is contesting the results, saying that her campaign received numerous reports of voter suppression and problems with ballots.

Public sector unions and progressive groups came together much better in the 39th district on the northwest side of the city, where neighborhoods of Latino and eastern European working-class households are very slowly gentrifying. In his second try for the Democratic nomination for state representative—after losing by 125 votes in 2012—26-year old Will Guzzardi put together a community and labor coalition that he identified with the long history of insurgent progressive politics in Chicago, including the 1983 election of Mayor Harold Washington. He successfully ousted Toni Berrios, the daughter of Cook County Democratic Party Chariman Joe Berrios, whom many see as a pillar of old-school Chicago machine politics.

Guzzardi's victory struck a blow at both the remnants of the old machine and the new boss, Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who endorsed Toni Berrios. But Guzzardi’s win was only partly a labor victory: on election day unions were working hard in the streets around Logan Square for both candidates, with mostly public-sector unions working for Guzzardi and building trades unions stumping for Berrios.

A slate of unpalatable choices

While labor did not unite behind any candidate in the Republican gubernatorial race, many were firmly opposed to Rauner, making his victory a bitter one. The political conference of the 70,000-member American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 31, decided initially to endorse no candidate, but rather to fund an ad blitz enumerating Rauner’s faults.

Near the end of the primary, they endorsed the campaign of Republican state Sen. Kirk Dillard, who had voted against state worker pension cuts and was seen as the strongest of Rauner’s opponents. According to Capitol Fax writer Rich Miller, some unions targeted Republicans with ads arguing that Rauner was not a real Republican, because of his moderate stance on many social issues. But others, like AFSCME, chose to attack Rauner on issues that were part of their normal political message, highlighting Rauner’s opposition to a minimum wage increase. As election day approached, the big public sector unions—both the Illinois Educational Association, the Illinois Federation of Teachers, Service Employees International Union and AFSCME—urged both Republican members and Democrats who did not have important primary races on their ballots to take a Republican ballot and vote for Dillard.

The attacks and announcement of public union support for Dillard ignited a surge in his poll numbers. Rauner’s lead slipped from 20 points in early February to 13 points in early March, according to Chicago Tribune polls. On primary day, Rauner narrowly won with 40.1 percent to Dillard’s 37.3 percent. The tactic of urging crossover voting seemed to work: In the strongly Republican downstate Sangamon County, where a very large share of the workforce is in the public sector, Dillard won by a more than 30 percent margin.

“I was very pleased by how we did,” says John Cameron, AFSCME director of community and political affairs. “This effort to show Rauner’s vulnerability was as successful as it could be. It sets the table for the fall.”

While they may detest Rauner, unions are also unhappy with Quinn, who has cut public-sector pensions and jobs, restricted some state employees from joining unions and supported other measures that hurt the interests of state employees and their unions.

The Democratic primary revealed that dissatisfaction with Quinn, even in his own party, extends beyond public employees, A little-known opponent, Chicago anti-violence activist Tio Hardiman, won 28 percent of the light turnout with only token campaigning. Quinn may be vulnerable in the general election if he cannot mobilize Democratic turnout.

Whatever Quinn’s faults may be, however, he has polished his populist campaign message over a lifetime, and there are few better targets than Rauner, who corrected one reporter who placed him in the upper 1% by pointing out he was really in the upper .01%.

With the weird line-up of candidates and ideologies for the fall elections, labor, community groups and progressives will need to work more closely together to avoid a catastrophe. But even if they do, the best possible results are likely to be disappointing.

Full disclosure: AFSCME is a website sponsor of In These Times. Sponsors have no control over editorial content.

David Moberg, a senior editor of In These Times, has been on the staff of the magazine since it began publishing in 1976. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He has received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy. He can be reached at davidmoberg@inthesetimes.com.

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