Democrats and Republicans woke up the day after the Illinois primary election to each put on a unified front, and the very places they chose to break bread illustrated the theme of the eight-month campaign that lies ahead.
Gov. Pat Quinn, U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin and Mayor Rahm Emanuel huddled beneath Michigan Avenue for a breakfast of eggs, sausage and hash browns at the tourist dive of the Billy Goat Tavern as off-duty steelworkers from a nearby construction project watched from the bar.
Republican leaders, including new standard bearer Bruce Rauner, gathered beneath ornate chandeliers on the fifth floor of the tony Union League Club for a plated lunch of chicken and rice medley as they vowed to take over a governor’s office the GOP last won 16 years ago.
Cue the class warfare rhetoric from both sides.
The Democratic governor accused the Republican challenger of being so wealthy, he’s out of touch with average Illinoisans while promoting an “extreme” agenda. And the Republican fired back that his own success in business shows the Democrat “doesn’t understand what America is about.”
Rauner and Quinn are expected to stick to those themes in the months leading to the Nov. 4 general election. It’s a framework exacerbated by a variety of influences, including other candidates on the ballot and outside political interests trying to persuade voters. In the U.S. Senate contest, Durbin noted that Republican foe Jim Oberweis is a multi-millionaire while calling himself a “mere mortal."
Quinn piled on when talking about Rauner. “I think any billionaire who owns nine mansions, who then campaigns on cutting the minimum wage on hard working men and women in Illinois who are doing the right thing, working hard — a billionaire calling for a cut in the minimum wage is class warfare and we're not going to let him get away with it,” Quinn said.
Rauner, a venture capitalist from Winnetka who owns homes and ranches in Millennium Park, the Florida Keys, Montana, Utah and Wyoming and has said he is not a billionaire, said Quinn’s rhetoric disguises the Democrat’s failure to help boost jobs and the state’s still recession-weary economy.
“You know what? Pat Quinn doesn’t understand that this isn’t class warfare. Class warfare accomplishes nothing for the people of this state. I know how to work. I know how to lead,” Rauner told reporters after the Republican unity lunch.
“Since when in America is it bad for somebody to work hard and do great? That’s what America is about. Pat Quinn doesn’t understand what America is about,” he said.
The exchange of heat, if not light, came a day after Rauner narrowly won the Republican governor primary after putting $6 million of his own money into a campaign that raised more than $14 million. The first-time candidate defeated state Sen. Kirk Dillard of Hinsdale, who was backed by the state’s major public employee unions and made a late surge.
Dillard opted not to attend the luncheon to go to Springfield where the General Assembly was in session. But following his loss Tuesday night, the veteran lawmaker had his own criticisms of Rauner, including attacking the victor’s frequent primary campaign refrain that “government union bosses” were a corrupting influence in Illinois.
“Bruce is clearly going to need to stop demonizing teachers and people who work for a living if he’s going to have a chance as a Republican nominee for governor,” Dillard said.
Rauner offered no criticism of unions in his remarks to party leaders or in speaking to reporters on Wednesday and sought to downplay the backing public unions gave Dillard in making the GOP contest close. “I think Sen. Dillard ran a very good, strong spirited campaign and we always knew it was going to be tough,” Rauner said.
Though he had the financial wherewithal to launch a primary campaign with little name recognition and go on to defeat three veteran Republicans with statewide political experience, Rauner maintained that he was the underdog in challenging Quinn.
“Folks will say, ‘Oh, we don’t have much of a chance against Pat Quinn.’ The naysayers will say that just the way they said, ‘Oh Bruce, you don’t have much of a chance’ when we started a year ago,” Rauner said.
“We have a message that unifies all voters. We’re going to win this race because we’re working for everybody,” he said.
Tens of millions of dollars in outside political cash are expected to flow into the high-stakes governor’s race. The latest evidence of that turned up Wednesday, when Rauner reported an initial $750,000 infusion from the Republican Governors Association. Quinn is expected to get plenty of financial help in the months ahead from the Democratic Governors Association. Interest groups like organized labor and anti-tax groups could join the fray as well.
For his part, Quinn contended he is the candidate working to restore jobs and economic opportunity — first at a stop at a Loop construction site for an ultra-luxury apartment building and later at Chicago’s landmark lower-level tavern.
Quinn would not speculate about whether government employee and teachers unions would eventually back him for governor. While Quinn signed a measure into law cutting back government worker pension benefits, the unions dislike Rauner even more.
“I really look forward to a vigorous campaign with a lot of support from labor, but also people all over our state who understand that what's at stake here is the heart and soul of Illinois,” Quinn said. “We're battling for the soul of Illinois, and the other side has an extreme agenda that is mean spirited.”
Quinn has used the issue of increasing the minimum wage rate, from the current $8.25 an hour to at least $10, to focus attention on the issue of income disparity in the state, much the way Democrats have used calls for a hike in the $7.25 an hour federal minimum wage.
During the GOP primary campaign, Rauner told one group that the state’s minimum wage rate should go back to the federal rate. He later said he would back an increase in the federal rate to match Illinois’ or would support raising the state’s rate even higher if several pro-business actions were taken, including tax relief.
While Quinn and other members of the Democratic ticket argued that Rauner’s agenda favored the wealthy, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle rejected claims that the party was engaging in class warfare.
“I'm a history teacher, and it's like suggesting if you talk about race you're a racist,” Preckwinkle said. “If you talk about inequality, that doesn't mean you're pushing class warfare. It’s just acknowledging the real differences between our candidates.”Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun