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Editorial: Saving Ken Dunkin, Governor, won’t save Illinois

Lt. Gov. Julianna Stratton
State Rep. Juliana Stratton | AP File Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast

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State Rep. Ken Dunkin’s South Side district votes overwhelmingly Democratic every two years, which is why it should vote overwhelmingly against him on Tuesday.

On the line for Democrats in Illinois is the ability to counter an ideologically-driven Republican governor, Bruce Rauner, who is holding state government hostage to an anti-union agenda at odds with political reality. On the line for everybody in Illinois, regardless of party affiliation, is the ability to move beyond a kind of ineffectually coercive style of politics, relentlessly practiced by Rauner, that is doing permanent damage to Chicago and the state.

A vote for Dunkin in the Democratic primary is a vote for Rauner at his most divisive, as he continues to pursue a failed strategy to win a war he can’t win. It is a vote for continued paralysis in Springfield.

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Dunkin is running for re-election in the Democratic primary, but he is out of favor with his own party’s leaders, who are backing his opponent, Juliana Stratton. Twice in the last six months, Dunkin committed an unforgivable party sin when, simply by not showing up, he denied House Democrats a voting supermajority to override the governor’s veto of key legislation.

Rauner was thrilled, of course, and now he and his supporters are throwing huge sums of campaign money Dunkin’s way. By getting Dunkin reelected, they hope to undermine the Democrats’ supermajority, at least often enough for the governor to have his way.

The governor just doesn’t get it. He will never get anything through the Democratic-controlled Legislature, even a basic state budget, as long as he insists on acceptance first of his various “turnaround agenda” reforms, such as an anti-union right-to-work law. That will hold true even if the Democrats lose their supermajority, which wouldn’t be a bad thing. We’re not wild about overly centralized power anywhere.

At the same time, the Legislature will never accomplish anything against the governor’s wishes, such as properly funding higher education and social services, if it can’t reliably muster that supermajority.

If Dunkin is not entirely in Rauner’s pocket already, he will be if re-elected. More than $2 million has flowed into the 5th District race, one of the most expensive in state history, with most of Dunkin’s money coming from Republicans or pro-Rauner Democrats. Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan and unions are throwing money at Stratton.

We struggle to understand what Rauner expects to accomplish with a slash-and-burn style of politics that can’t work in a state that has divided government. His only shot at success is to set aside his most politically unpalatable “turnaround agenda” demands and find common ground where possible, such as on constitutionally defensible pension reform and school funding.

Build up a little trust.

Instead, the governor is doing his level best to make an even bigger foe of Madigan, whose cooperation he will never stop needing. For an old-school pol like the speaker, it is highly objectionable for a Republican governor to go messing around in a Democratic primary. Yet Rauner and his allies are not only going all out for Dunkin, they also are openly backing a candidate, Jason Gonzales, against Madigan in his Southwest Side district.

This week, President Barack Obama endorsed Stratton, for which he’s catching grief from the usual critics. Since when, they ask, does a United States president stick his nose into a lowly state house race?

Since now, and for good reason.

Dunkin all but begged Obama to endorse his opponent when he created a deceitful radio ad that left the false impression the president was on his side. The radio spot ended with a snippet from Obama’s recent speech to the Illinois General Assembly, the one in which he said, “We’ll talk later, Dunkin.” The ad left out the put-down from Obama that came next: “Sit down.”

Almost certainly, Obama also chose to make an endorsement in this low-level race because he knows the stakes are not low at all. The president, who once served in the state Senate and still calls Chicago his real home, understands just how much damage has been inflicted on Illinois by a politics of rigid ideology, mostly by the governor. We write about it all the time: Kids can’t afford college, people with mental illness can’t get help, single working parents can’t find daycare, and businesses can’t afford to stick around until political stability returns.

In this South Side fight by proxy, Rauner would love to score an emotionally satisfying victory over Madigan. We get that. There are plenty of times when we’ve tried to take the speaker down a peg, too, especially when it comes to issues like his self-serving opposition to legislative redistricting reform.

But what is Gov. Rauner’s strategy here? If he can’t call the Legislature to heel — and saving Ken Dunkin won’t call anybody to heel — what is his end game?

We don’t see it.

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