The race for Illinois governor is shaping up as a battle of vastly different visions on how to revive a lagging economy in one of the Midwest’s last Democratic strongholds.
While the incumbent Democrat has increased taxes and pushed for raising the minimum wage, the multimillionaire Republican facing him this fall wants to curtail government unions and run President Barack Obama’s home state like a business.
By winning the Republican primary Tuesday night, venture capitalist Bruce Rauner advances to a November matchup with Gov. Pat Quinn, expected to be one of the hardest fought and expensive in the nation. As Republicans attempt to reclaim the state’s top office for the first time in more than a decade, labor unions – traditionally aligned with Democrats – are trying to avoid another blow like they’ve felt under GOP governors elsewhere.
Rauner has labeled as role models Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and former Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, both of whom pushed anti-union policies. Those comments prompted organized labor to spend millions trying to derail a Rauner nomination.
The Winnetka venture capitalist, who sunk more than $6 million of his own money into his campaign to defeat three veteran lawmakers during his first bid for public office, targeted the “career politicians” and government “union bosses” he says have caused Illinois’ woeful financial situation.
Speaking at a victory celebration at a Chicago hotel, Rauner called Quinn a failure and said he wants to “bring back Illinois” by giving working families a chance to increase their income, get a good education and raise their families in prosperity. He has said he’d do that by lowering taxes, cutting spending and making Illinois friendlier to business.
“The voters are going to face a stark choice in November, a major decision about the future of our state,” Rauner said. “It’s a choice between failure of the past and a new day, a bright future.”
At a union hall a few blocks away, Quinn wasted no time in framing the race, renewing his call for a higher minimum wage, calling working people “the real everyday heroes” and drawing attention to Rauner’s wealth.
“I’m here to fight for an economy that works for everyone. Not just the billionaires, but for everyone,” said Quinn, who easily won the Democratic primary against a lesser-known challenger.
Quinn also launched a campaign ad late Tuesday showing video clips of Rauner saying he wants to cut the minimum wage and is “adamantly, adamantly” against raising it – a position Rauner flip-flopped on during the primary.
Quinn has pushed for years to raise the state’s minimum wage to $10 per hour, from $8.25. Rauner now says he doesn’t want to cut the rate, but that it shouldn’t be raised unless the federal rate also increases to be equal to Illinois. He says hiking it will force employers to eliminate jobs.
Republicans see Quinn as vulnerable because of the state’s budget problems, a 67 percent income tax hike he pushed for and signed, and the Midwest’s highest unemployment. Rauner frequently calls the Chicago Democrat “the worst governor in America.”
But Quinn, who served as lieutenant governor to Gov. Rod Blagojevich, later convicted of corruption, points to the bleak situation he inherited when he took office five years ago – when the state was in a recession and had one governor in prison and another on his way.
He says he’s gotten Illinois back on track, passing a massive capital construction bill he says created hundreds of thousands of jobs and approving legislation to address Illinois’ worst-in-the-nation state pension shortfall. He’s also expected to tout the approval of legislation to allow gay marriage.
“We know in this election campaign it’ll be a tough fight,” Quinn said. “And I’ve been in a lot of tough fights.”
Illinois’ influential labor unions are expected to continue their attacks on Rauner in the general election.
Their efforts appeared to help make it a tighter-than-expected race Tuesday between Rauner state Sen. Kirk Dillard, who picked up the endorsement of three of the state’s largest public-employee unions. Dillard bested Rauner in several counties that are home to a large numbers of state workers.
Ed Kline, a farmer from LeRoy, said he was turned off by Rauner’s spending. He cast his ballot Tuesday for Quinn.
“I think he’s honest and he does the best he can do with what he’s got to work with,” Kline said.
But other voters responded to Rauner’s outsider status and his push to establish term limits for legislators, a move he says will help root out corruption.
“I’m all about voting out the old guard,” said Kevin Yessa, 53, of Downers Grove.