Illinois’ race for governor: A populism and proxy war


By Benjamin Yount | Illinois Watchdog

CHICAGO, Ill. — The working man in Illinois apparently can’t lose.

Both Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn and his newly minted Republican challenger Bruce Rauner are laying a “man of the people” groundwork in their run at the governor’s mansion in Illinois.

WORKING MAN’S FRIEND? Rauner wants to build Illinois’ economy not increase government spending.

“As long as I’m governor, I’m here to fight for the 99.99 percent,” Quinn said in his salt of the earth acceptance speech after easily winning the Democratic primary. “Together, we will build and protect the middle class and keep Illinois moving forward.”

Rauner, a multimillionaire who squeaked out a victory against a public employee union-backed opponent, sounded a similar every-man tone.

“This is about the truck driver in Rockford looking for more work,” Rauner said. “This is about the factory worker in Decatur who lost his job…this is about the single mother in Pilsen, struggling to make ends meet who wants to have a better life.”

Rauner supporter and Palatine GOP precinct committeeman Kevin Cavanaugh said voters are going to have a choice between two very different visions of populism.

“(Rauner) is playing to what people want,” Cavanaugh said. “There’s a want for tax rollbacks, there’s a want for fiscal responsibility.”

Quinn’s populism is what voters have come to expect from the two-term Democrat: government action and government spending.

“I’m here to fight for working people who deserve a fair shake,” Quinn told his crowd of well-wishers, “And I’m here today to fight for an economy that works for everyone, not just for the billionaires, but for everybody.”

YOU KNOW ME: Quinn is relying on the same populist message he used four years ago.

Quinn’s primary victory speech echoed his gubernatorial address to lawmakers from last month. He once again called for a $10-an-hour minimum wage.

But the battle for the governor’s mansion is going to be as much a proxy war over the role of public sector unions as it is about fight for who is the real man of the people.

Rauner made no secret of his desire to unseat the “government union bosses” during his run through the primary.

Those union bosses, including American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Service Employees International Union and Illinois’ teachers unions, have donated millions of dollars to Quinn over the years.

Andrew Matthews, a Illinois State University political science professor and local education union president, said there’s no doubt the proxy fight over labor will add millions of dollars to what is already expected to be an expensive November election.

“I don’t know what our union will end up doing. I don’t know where AFSCME is going to end up. I don’t know where SEIU (will end up),” Matthews said. “This is a Pat Quinn versus Bruce Rauner race. (But) certainly organized labor is going to have a voice in that race. We have a voice in every race.”

Ron Gidwitz, a former GOP candidate for governor and Rauner financier, said he expects labor unions from outside the state to open the flood gates, and pour millions of dollars into Illinois.

“They’re pretty determined that we’ll have a tough race in the fall,” Gidwitz added. “We’ll see what happens.”

Contact Benjamin Yount at and find him on Twitter @BenYount.

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