WASHINGTON — In a very rare move, President Barack Obama jumped in one of the biggest Democratic state House primaries in Illinois on Monday, endorsing Juliana Stratton against incumbent Ken Dunkin, whose re-election is bankrolled by allies of GOP Gov. Bruce Rauner.
“The people of Chicago deserve leaders who follow through. Juliana Stratton has spent her career serving our community, improving the juvenile justice system and protecting public safety,” Obama said in the TV spot.
“Juliana will fight to get guns off our streets and fight for tougher penalties for violent offenders. I’m Barack Obama. I’m asking you to vote for Democrat Juliana Stratton for state representative,” the president says in the TV ad. The president does not appear on camera.
The Chicago Sun-Times has learned that the Democratic National Committee reached out to the Stratton campaign, saying the president was interested in being helpful. The Sun-Times also learned that Obama recorded the spots — one radio, one TV, last week.
In a phone interview, Stratton told me that the endorsement, “Quite frankly, came as a surprise to me.” As for the impact, she said, “President Obama’s opinion matters. It matters to the people of this district.”
The spots will run through the March 15 Illinois primary; there is about $300,000 behind the TV ad buy and about $100,000 for radio. The ads were produced by Adelstein and Associates, handling the media for the Stratton campaign.
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It may be unprecedented for Obama to get involved in a legislative race.
Eric Adelstein said Obama’s backing was an enormous political boost.
“It’s a game changer,” with the Obama intercession reinforcing “that Stratton is the true Democrat and Dunkin is not,” Adelstein said.
Dunkin’s campaign declined to comment on the extraordinary backing Stratton was receiving from the White House.
Dunkin found himself in a career-threatening Democratic primary after he started to side with Rauner on crucial votes, denying the state House Democrats a veto-proof super majority.
The battle over the 5th state House district — so heavily Democratic that winning the primary is tantamount to clinching the seat in November — is taking place on turf very familiar to the president.
The 5th District covers large portions of Chicago’s South Side, and while the Obamas’ Kenwood home is not in the district, his Presidential Center will be in either Washington Park — in the district — or in nearby Jackson Park.
Dunkin helped push the president into taking action by running a radio ad using a snippet from Obama’s Feb. 10 speech to the Illinois General Assembly in Springfield, designed to leave the impression the president is supporting him.
In Springfield last month, after Obama said finding common ground doesn’t “make me a sellout to my own party,” the president told Dunkin to sit down when he jumped up to clap at the sellout line — as if it were for him.
“Well, we’ll talk later, Dunkin,” Obama said.
A DNC source told me that part of the reason why Obama is making the spots for Stratton was “to set the record straight that the President has not endorsed Dunkin; he is endorsing the challenger.”
“And also we’ve heard some rumblings that Dunkin is trying to say that the ad isn’t real — it is. Also, the key issue is gun violence prevention. Stratton is in the right place and POTUS said previously he would help candidates who were in the right place on guns. She also has the support of many community leaders and the labor community, which helps,” the DNC source said.
Obama pledged in January to help candidates who help him, especially when it comes to guns.
The Stratton-Dunkin race is a proxy war funded by allies of state House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, and Rauner. Neither Stratton, who is the director of the Center for Public Safety and Justice at the University of Illinois at Chicago, nor Dunkin has demonstrated any ability to raise major campaign dollars themselves.
Stratton’s campaign is kept afloat through union donations. But Democratic-allied labor groups often pick sides in primaries.
Dunkin is another story. His Democratic campaign is bankrolled by Republicans.
The Illinois Opportunity Project, a group run by conservative Republicans, including activist and radio host Dan Proft, who controls several political funds, pumped a giant $800,000 into Dunkin’s re-election bid, with $300,000 of that reported in March.
A spokesman for the Illinois Opportunity Project, which does not disclose its donors, said they would have no comment on the Obama endorsement.
And on Monday, state records show another group with GOP ties, IllinoisGo, run by Greg Goldner, an operative who founded Resolute Consulting, pumped more than $200,000 into opposing Stratton, on top of other expenditures to keep Dunkin in office.
Late on Monday, the Illinois Board of Elections posted a report showing that Rauner contributed $2 million to his main political war chest.