Who is the Democratic ‘establishment’ in Illinois?

Oct 07, 2017


The race for the Democratic nomination for Illinois governor has already seen significant endorsements from local party leaders and elected officials, and even more from major unions and national figures. These endorsements shed light on the strategy behind each candidate’s campaign, and can often be linked to their fundraising efforts. As more unions and elected officials endorse candidates, a significant “establishment” and “anti-establishment” current continues to dominate the conversation in the year’s most contentious election.

Current Trends in Gubernatorial Endorsements
JB Pritzker currently leads the field of Democratic candidates for governor, with over 30 endorsements from elected officials and local Democratic Party leaders. Notable endorsements for Pritzker include U.S. Representative Luis Gutierrez, Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White, the Cook County Democratic Party, and 23 other county party chairs.

As ICPR explored in detail last month, the billionaire has also racked up endorsements from a host of labor unions. Notably missing from the list of formal endorsements are members of the Illinois General Assembly, other than Pritzker’s own running mate, State Representative Juliana Stratton.

State Senator Daniel Biss has won the most endorsements after Pritzker, at least 10, mainly from members of the Illinois General Assembly. In addition to his formal endorsements from local politicians, Biss has received $200,000 from the campaign committees of elected officials. This sum includes money from officials who have not issued a formal endorsement, but chose to help fund his campaign for governor.

Biss’ endorsements from political figures include U.S. Representative Robin Kelly, Bloomington Mayor Tari Renner, and at least seven Democratic members of the General Assembly. Notably, Biss lost the endorsement of US Rep. Brad Schneider after adding Chicago Alderman Carlos Ramirez-Rosa to his ticket. Schneider rescinded his support after concerns emerged about Ramirez-Rosa’s position on U.S. relations with Israel.

Chris Kennedy, nephew of JFK, trails Pritzker and Biss in endorsements. Kennedy’s main endorser is U.S. Representative Bobby Rush. Other contenders for the Democratic nomination include State Representative Scott Drury and Chicago Alderman Ameya Pawar. Drury and Pawar have not been the focus of endorsements so far, but Pawar has announced that he was endorsed by the Illinois “Berniecrats” – a chapter of the Sanders-backed group Our Revolution.


Juliana Stratton, JB Pritzker’s Running Mate, Received an Endorsement from President Obama in her 2016 Primary for State Representative

Who is the Democratic “Establishment” in Illinois?
These endorsements may reflect the different strategies each candidate is using to address the Democratic “establishment” in Illinois. Victory in a Primary Election requires candidates to build a coalition of different factions of the Democratic Party, so their alliances with and statements about party leaders can be crucial.

On the national level, these coalitions are typically defined by ideological differences. For example, the 2016 Democratic Presidential Primary Election comprised two main factions: the more centrist establishment, which backed Hillary Clinton, and the more progressive anti-establishment, which supported Bernie Sanders.

In Illinois, the line between establishment and anti-establishment is less clear. On one end, there is JB Pritzker. Already, key factions of the Democratic establishment, such as the Cook County Democratic Party and many of the states’ labor unions, have coalesced around Pritzker. Not only that, but most political commentators and many of the other gubernatorial candidates claim that Pritzker is Illinois Democratic Party Chair and House Speaker Michael Madigan’s preferred candidate, although the Speaker has been insistent that he remains neutral in the race.

On the other end, State Rep. Scott Drury’s main strategy has been speaking out against Madigan, along with Republican Governor Bruce Rauner. On different occasions, Drury has called Madigan “Lord Voldemort”  and “Dr. Frankenstein,” and has reminded voters that he was the only House Democrat not to vote for Madigan for Speaker in 30 years.

In between these two examples, it is harder to decide which candidates are running alongside or against the “establishment,” especially looking outside of the current campaign cycle. Ald. Ameya Pawar, for example, is an outspoken progressive candidate who often points to his roots as an outsider with “no money and no endorsements” in his race to become a Chicago Alderman.

When other candidates have taken the opportunity to speak out against Madigan specifically, Pawar often refrains from mentioning the Speaker in any of his press releases. This careful omission of Madigan’s name could show that Pawar is playing a long game – there has been speculation that he could be a contender in the 2019 Chicago Mayoral race. 

Sen. Daniel Biss, in contrast, has taken his share of jabs at Speaker Madigan. At the beginning of August, before the eventual school funding compromise was being discussed, Biss called Madigan “part of the problem.” Before that, the Evanston senator called for Madigan to be replaced along with Governor Rauner during the final months of the two-year long budget crisis.

However, an article from The Hill in March reminded Illinois politicos that Daniel Biss had significant ties to Madigan as recently as this past November. In that report, the DC-based news site highlighted the role Biss had in running the LIFT PAC (Leading Illinois for Tomorrow), which raised $10 million in two months to run ads connecting Governor Rauner to then-candidate Donald Trump. According to that article, most of those contributions came from Speaker Madigan’s allies in the public and private sector.


Daniel Biss’ LIFT PAC ran a massive ad blitz featuring Governor Rauner and then-candidate Donald Trump

Following the Money in the Gubernatorial Race
This connection between Biss and Madigan shows how difficult it is to define a political “establishment,” and highlights one of the most important features in the political landscape: money. Governor Rauner currently has an unprecedented $67 million in his campaign committee more than a year ahead of the 2018 General Election. A major aspect of any Democrat’s political calculus must be a plan to combat Rauner’s ability to raise millions of dollars through self-funding and mega-donors like Ken Griffin.

The strategy of many important sections of the Democratic coalition seems to be supporting their own wealthy self-funder. JB Pritzker has pledged to fund his campaign solely through his own personal donations. The billionaire’s promise not to solicit donations from other groups has led to an unprecedented political situation between Pritzker and labor unions.

Typically, labor organizations have served as the major financial backers of statewide Democratic campaigns in Illinois. Thus, union endorsements for governor have usually been accompanied with significant financial support down the road. However, Pritzker’s pledge to self-fund means unions can support his candidacy without providing financial backing, allowing them to spend more on down-ticket races.

This potential rationale for union backing fails to explain why Pritzker lacks support from General Assembly members. Theoretically, Pritzker’s candidacy against Rauner would free up union money to be spent on winning Democratic races in the House and Senate. Then why, as mentioned above, are so many GA members supporting Sen. Daniel Biss, possibly against their financial interests? 


Candidates Ameya Pawar and Chris Kennedy have each reported endorsements this summer as the gubernatorial race heats up

A Quiet Challenge to the Establishment?
One answer could be that these legislators are quietly challenging the Democratic “establishment,” represented by Speaker Madigan. Many legislators are actively supporting Daniel Biss, who has been openly critical of both Pritzker and Madigan.

The coming months will be critical in assessing whether the Democratic establishment is facing a serious challenge. State employee unions and teachers’ unions represent a significant amount of Democratic supporters, and some still have not endorsed any candidates in the race. The Chicago Teacher’s Union (CTU), one of the major teachers’ unions in the state, has railed against the compromise Republican and Democratic leadership recently struck to end the school funding standoff. Senator Biss recently announced his running mate as Chicago Alderman Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, who is a long-time CTU ally. Biss also voted against the school funding reform package that the CTU was staunchly opposed to.

Going forward, it is important to keep watch not only over what candidates, elected officials, and unions are saying, but also where they are spending and receiving money. To follow the donations to and from candidates for office in Illinois, check out Illinois Sunshine, ICPR’s campaign finance database updated daily with data from the Illinois State Board of Elections.

*ICPR contacted each campaign to request a full list of official endorsements, but did not receive a response. Endorsements listed here are sourced from public statements and press releases from individual candidates.


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