Ken Dunkin and Juliana Stratton are running for a seat in the state House, but the candidates both cast the decision facing voters as a choice between Gov. Bruce Rauner and House Speaker Mike Madigan.
Dunkin, the Democratic incumbent, says Stratton is controlled by Madigan — while insisting he is not “Rauner’s guy or his boy.”
Primary challenger Stratton fires back that Dunkin has a dangerous alliance with the Republican governor — while insisting she won’t be “a rubber stamp” for Madigan.
The 5th District they are seeking comprises a narrow swath of Chicago that stretches from the South Side’s Grand Crossing neighborhood to the Near North Side, and it has become a battleground in the proxy war between the the Democratic speaker and Rauner.
Dunkin, who has held the 5th District seat for 13 years, has twice defied Madigan on votes that would have given the speaker legislative victories over the Republican governor. Dunkin’s defections have prompted Democratic leaders to make the rare move of backing a newcomer — Stratton — against an incumbent.
Appearing before the Chicago Sun-Times Editorial Board on Monday, Dunkin said Stratton is a Madigan puppet, while Stratton said Rauner was pulling Dunkin’s strings.
“Mike Madigan is 1,000 percent directing money and telling [Stratton] exactly what the program is,” Dunkin said. “The sad part of it is, I’m not Rauner’s ally, Rauner’s guy or his boy. I’m an independent Democrat that is thinking off of the political plantation that is administered [in Springfield].”
Stratton, an attorney, responded that she would not be afraid to stand up to the speaker, but that state Democrats need to stand together against Rauner – not go around the party to make deals.
“I’m not here to rubber stamp anything, I’m here to say what’s best,” she said. “Standing up against the really destructive agenda of Gov. Rauner is something that the Democrats have to stay unified about, because it is not good thing for our communities.”
Dunkin’s characterization of “plantation politics” in the statehouse — with Madigan as the overseer — has become a rallying cry for his supporters, but Stratton called the slavery metaphor “race-baiting.”
During the side-by-side interview with Stratton on Monday, Dunkin referred to Democratic lawmakers as “monkeys”— before quickly correcting himself and calling them “minions”— prompting a lengthy denouncement from Stratton.
“To compare himself in the Illinois House to this horrific institution of slavery is not only offensive, but I also find it to be pathetic,” Stratton said. “For him to use that type of language I see that as race-baiting.”
Dunkin didn’t back down, claiming Madigan has demanded the Black Caucus vote the party line, while the speaker ignores caucus members’ requests for help in their districts.
“The Mike Madigan slave mentality of his plantation politics is real,” Dunkin said. “That’s an afro-centric terminology in terms of plantation politics. If you want to go there [Madigan] has been there 45 years, 32 years been the speaker. Have you gone on the West Side of Chicago, in certain parts, certain parts of the South Side?”
Both candidates are African American.
A slate of prominent Democrats has endorsed Stratton, as well as unions stung by Dunkin’s no-show on a bill that would have sent state employees’ contract dispute with Rauner to an arbitrator. Dunkin was absent for the vote on that bill, and abstained on a bill that would have restored funding for programs for the needy.
Dunkin said siding with the governor paved the way for Rauner compromises that restored funding for programs for children, the needy and the elderly.
“Their goal is [to say] ‘He’s a Raunerite.’ All I did was go talk to the guy and say, listen you are inhuman if you can’t support these most vulnerable citizens,” Dunkin said.
Stratton said Dunkin could have driven a better bargain if he’d stood by his party.
“The best people to say whether he gets credit [for his dealmaking] are the people of the 5th District,” Stratton said. “His alliance with Gov. Bruce Rauner is not going to be something that is going to be good for them.”
The Republican-linked Illinois Opportunity Project gave Dunkin $500,000, and an independent expenditure committee affiliated with IllinoisGO, which bills itself as supporting Democrats willing to make “difficult votes,” has spent more than $140,000 on his behalf.
But Dunkin pointed out that he cannot coordinate with the IllinoisGO on how the money is spent.
“I can’t coordinate with them or communicate with them,” Dunkin told Stratton. “I’m looking for support just like you’re looking for support.”