Opinion: The great Madigan-Rauner proxy war is on, baby


By Eric Zorn, Chicago Tribune

On the March 15 Democratic primary ballot in Illinois’ 5th House District, voters will be asked to choose between incumbent Rep. Ken Dunkin and challenger Juliana Stratton.

But symbolically and for all practical purposes, the choice will be between Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner and Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan, as the state’s two most powerful and most controversial politicians square off by proxy in Illinois’ most consequential election contest since 2014.

Until last year, Dunkin was a comparatively low-profile Democrat, one of those veteran lawmakers in safe districts who seldom make news. Then he went rogue, breaking with his caucus at several key moments and declining to cast votes that would have helped Madigan gain traction in his titanic power struggle with Rauner.


The outlines of that struggle are this: Rauner, an ultrawealthy venture capitalist, ousted incumbent Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn in the November 2014 election on a promise to “shake up Springfield.” After he was inaugurated, he began doggedly pursuing a “turnaround agenda” that included many changes to laws and procedures he considers essential to improving the state’s business climate but that Democrats consider anathema.

Rauner has stubbornly refused to negotiate on the state budget until the Democrats grant him some of those changes. And the Democrats, led by Madigan and strengthened by solid majorities in both chambers of the General Assembly, have just as stubbornly adopted a “budget first” stance.

Accordingly, Illinois is now in its eighth month without a budget, falling tens of millions of dollars further into arrears every day, watching social service programs close and hearing warnings about impending collapses in higher education.

Problem is, so far, both sides seem to think that their chances of prevailing only increase as the crisis deepens. Rauner seems to think the public is blaming an icily intransigent Madigan as the pain ratchets up on the less fortunate. Madigan seems to think the public is blaming the breezily ideological Rauner for the cutbacks and closings.

Meanwhile, officials with most of the agencies and institutions getting clobbered in the stalemate are too frightened of repercussions to try to move the debate in either direction, so they simply go on TV and bleat their tales of woe.

Who’s really winning? The result of the Dunkin-Stratton race will give us a strong indication.

Dunkin’s defiance of Madigan, formerly passive-aggressive – he simply didn’t go to Springfield for a key vote to limit Rauner’s power in negotiations with public unions in September – has become aggressive and brazen. He cut a side deal with Rauner in November that, due to the precarious balance of power in the House, preserved Rauner’s unilateral authority to make cuts in child care funding. Last month he began ripping Madigan for his “plantation mentality” in asking for loyalty from him and his fellow African-American legislators.


Wednesday, then, he popped proudly out of his seat during the portion of President Barack Obama’s speech that praised bipartisanship and the courage to cross party lines. “We’ll talk later, Dunkin,” the president scolded him. “You just sit down.”

Under the circumstances, Madigan simply has to take Dunkin down in the primary. If he doesn’t – if Dunkin gets away with betraying his colleagues, acting like a jackass and insulting the top member of the Democratic Party while making an alliance with the leader of the Republican Party, and if he does so in a district that runs most of the length of heavily Democratic Chicago with a candidate endorsed by a lineup of heavy hitters – then the so-called Velvet Hammer will be exposed as a Feathery Powderpuff, unable to maintain the discipline Rauner has largely maintained over his caucus.

And, somewhat less urgently, Rauner has to help Dunkin win the nomination if he’s to have any hope of ever peeling off enough Democratic support to enact his agenda. If the first major Rauner-crat to step forward loses after winning two years ago with more than 80 percent of the vote, it will send a message to all Democrats who’ve considered breaking ranks that the governor is likely to lose any war of attrition.

Accordingly, allied forces have already dumped big bucks into the campaign on both sides (as they have in a somewhat similar but lower-profile primary race Downstate in which Rauner-friendly funders are trying to oust Republican state Sen. Sam McCann of Plainview for having the audacity to cast one meaningless vote against the governor).

A recent poll showed the race is close, but about 1 in 4 voters remain undecided.

A series of blistering mailers favoring challenger Stratton, the director for the Center for Public Safety and Justice at the University of Illinois at Chicago and also an African-American, dropped late last week making a number of unsavory to scandalous allegations about Dunkin that I’d prefer to know more about before repeating.

But the stakes are so high here that I suspect the nastiness has just begun.


(c)2016 the Chicago Tribune

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