Legislative Primary May Help Tighten Democrats' Supermajority in Illinois

Legislative Primary May Help Tighten Democrats' Supermajority in Illinois

Illinois Democrats’ ability to thwart Republican Governor Bruce Rauner’s right-wing, union-busting agenda has just been enhanced by the defeat of a state representative who regularly broke party ranks on key union votes.

Incumbent state representative Ken Dunkin, a Democrat whose defections on key votes often thwarted the party’s slim supermajority in the house, lost by more than two-to-one against Juliana Stratton in last night’s primary. His opponent received high-profile endorsements, including from Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan and even President Barack Obama.

The local race served as a proxy war between the union-busting governor and his Democratic opponents in the legislature, who are deadlocked over a nine-month budget impasse. As I reported last week in the Prospect, the disagreements between Rauner and his Democratic opponents have centered on the governor’s insistence that spending measures be tied to anti-union measures. 

Dunkin, who has served in the House since 2002, raised eyebrows over the past year with a series of stunts aimed at Speaker Madigan and his colleagues. In September of last year, after missing a vote that would have hampered Rauner’s negotiating powers with a state workers’ union, Dunkin claimed he was “out of town,” and accused Madigan of running a “plantation” (Ken Dunkin is African American). In January, he brought a sleeping bag to a news conference, telling his colleagues he would not leave the chambers until he and his colleagues passed a budget deal.

His most notable and recent antic came in February, when Obama delivered a speech to the legislature. As the president extolled the need for a degree of bipartisanship and argued that occasionally crossing the aisle “doesn't make me a sellout to my own party,” Dunkin stood up and yelled “that’s right!”

Obama paused, looked toward the representative, and responded, “Well, we’ll talk later, Dunkin,” drawing enormous laughter and applause from the chamber.

If not for his repeated frustrations of his party’s agenda, Democrats might miss Dunkin as a source of mild amusement. Bruce Rauner, on the other hand, may have more to worry about. In the most expensive legislative race in Illinois’s history, “dark money” and super-PAC contributions made up more than 99 percent of the $3.4 million in donations to Dunkin’s campaign. Dunkin received $500,000 alone from a Rauner-aligned PAC, the largest single primary contribution in the state’s history. Stratton, by contrast, received about $1.8 million, largely from labor groups and political committees, but also from corporate interests and law firms. Almost none of the contributions to either campaign came from individual donors in the narrow district that snakes through from Chicago’s downtown business core to its poorer South Side.

Rauner found little solace in other state proxy races. Republicans failed to oust union-friendly Republican Senator Sam McCann downstate, and were also disappointed that insurgent efforts to unseat Madigan, who has occupied his chair since 1970, failed in the Democratic primary.

Through his communications director Lance Trover, Rauner issued a statement claiming many races where “special interests backed by Speaker Madigan” were also failures, though he did not mention any campaigns by name. Rauner then called on Madigan to “end his month long vacation and begin working with the Governor to enact a balanced budget alongside structural reforms that grow our economy.”

But Tuesday’s results suggest Madigan will have the upper hand in future negotiations, whether on union negotiations or the budget. Emboldened by a more secure supermajority, Madigan’s released his own statement last night. At face value conciliatory, it also appeared to signal a warning of sorts to Rauner:  

“With the clear message sent by voters Tuesday, I am hopeful we can use this framework moving forward to implement a state budget and work together to get things accomplished for the people we serve.”