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Brown: The race to watch Tuesday night: Dunkin vs. Stratton

Rep. Ken Dunkin, D-Chicago, and challenger Juliana Stratton talk to the Chicago Sun-Times editorial board in February. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

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We could have a good argument about the biggest race on the Illinois primary ballot Tuesday, with Democratic contests for the U.S. Senate and Cook County state’s attorney topping most lists aside from the obvious presidential sweepstakes.

But there’s only one contest in which the president of the United States has explicitly made an endorsement and cut a commercial.

And that ought to tell you something.

No matter how hard the White House tried to frame Barack Obama’s ad in support of 5th Illinois House District candidate Juliana Stratton in positive terms, it is most assuredly an attack on the incumbent, Rep. Ken Dunkin, D-Chicago.

The reason is just as obvious: Dunkin’s decision to take up sides with Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner over his party’s own leader, House Speaker Mike Madigan, in the high-stakes battle for control of state government.

From the moment Dunkin decided to buck Madigan and make his own deals with Rauner, the die was cast.

At that point, there was no doubt his re-election would be a death-fight between Madigan and Rauner, with the speaker needing to prove he can hold his Democratic majority firm, and Rauner needing to prove he will put his resources behind anyone willing to side with him against Madigan.

OPINION

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The result is one the most expensive legislative primaries in Illinois history — and the race that gets my vote for the outcome to watch Tuesday night.

I say that even though a Stratton win would mostly maintain the status quo in Springfield, and in the meantime, leave Madigan with a House member in Dunkin who will probably be even more recalcitrant until the end of his term in January.

A Dunkin victory, on the other hand, would be an invitation to more Democratic legislators to cut their own deals with Rauner, an outcome that might break the state logjam but potentially in all the wrong ways for those who oppose the governor’s anti-labor agenda.

I took a drive down to the South Side on Monday afternoon in hopes of speaking to Dunkin, but he was a no-show at his scheduled campaign appearances.

Dunkin has sought to downplay the idea that this is just a proxy war between Madigan and Rauner, probably because the Republican governor is extremely unpopular with black voters.

Instead, Dunkin has sought to cast the race in terms of black empowerment with African-American candidates and voters having an opportunity to shrug off the oppression of the Chicago Democratic Machine in the person of Madigan.

That would certainly be one interpretation.

Another interpretation is that it was more of a Ken Dunkin empowerment play.

Making nice with the Republican governor creates certain opportunities for any Democrat willing to buck Madigan, especially because the speaker needs every one of his members to stay in line to protect his veto-proof majority of 71 votes.

Some people want to know what’s wrong with a Democrat having a mind of his own and showing some independence from Madigan, who is hardly the standard-bearer of good government.

I understand that thinking, and on one of the votes that got Dunkin in trouble with his party, I can’t even say his decision was wrong on the merits of the issue.

But for those who believe in the values of the Democratic Party— and I realize maybe half of you reading this don’t — this is a bad time to have somebody freelancing side deals with a Republican governor who most assuredly does not.

Dunkin’s 5th District is a narrow band stretching from the Division Street bars on the North to just past 79th Street on the south.

On its way through downtown, it takes in many affluent voters who may be more inclined toward Rauner’s worldview.

But black voters will be the main deciders, and Obama’s endorsement points the way.

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