MILLER: To understand GOP infighting in Illinois, follow Durkin race

SHARE MILLER: To understand GOP infighting in Illinois, follow Durkin race

Illinois House Minority Leader Jim Durkin, R-Western Springs, faces a serious primary race challenger in March. (Ted Schurter/The State Journal-Register via AP)

If you were worried that House Republican Leader Jim Durkin wasn’t taking his primary race seriously enough, think again.

As you already may know, Leader Durkin is being challenged by Burr Ridge Mayor Mickey Straub, who has backing from conservative activist Dan Proft and Operating Engineers Union Local 150. It’s a bizarre duo teaming up in an unprecedented attempt to take out a Republican legislative leader. Durkin is the favorite, but one doesn’t want to take any chances in these trying times.


So, Durkin has brought in the highly capable Mike Zolnierowicz to handle things on his campaign. Mike Z, as he’s known in political circles, was Gov. Bruce Rauner’s deputy campaign manager, then his first chief of staff, then ran Rauner’s massive campaign apparatus until this past July. Zolnierowicz resigned during Rauner’s Great Summer Staff Purge (and eventual re-purge) of 2017 and joined Xpress Professional Services as its political director.

Z simply could not stay around after Rauner pushed out most of the people he had brought in (including his replacement as chief of staff, Richard Goldberg) and replaced them with what turned out to be incompetent ideologues.

After allowing Proft the field to himself for the past several weeks, Durkin’s campaign is now running two new cable TV ads. One is a positive spot that appears designed to address questions about his record raised by Proft’s group.

“Jim Durkin’s record?” the ad begins, “Durkin stood up to [House Speaker Michael Madigan’s] machine, his tax increase, his unbalanced budgets. Now Jim’s pushing property tax cuts. He knows we need relief. Jim Durkin, fighting for families against Madigan’s tax hikes.”

Z didn’t pioneer the use of anti-Madigan themes. That’s been around for decades. But he’s the one who made those attacks ubiquitous with Rauner’s money in the 2014 campaign and all the way through the 2016 election, when the Republicans impressively took away four seats from the House Democrats in a presidential cycle. And Z was planning to do it again until he decided to leave Team Rauner.

The second, negative TV spot against Straub also brings in Madigan, and uses Local 150’s support for Straub against the candidate.

“Ever met Mickey Straub? Don’t bother. You already know the man behind ‘Madigan Mickey,’” the narrator says as a black-and-white photo of Speaker Madigan is shown on screen.

“That’s why Madigan and his union allies are revving up the Chicago machine to grease the skids for Mickey Straub,” the narrator then says, as a reference to my syndicated column in the Sun-Times about Local 150’s support for Straub is displayed. “Say No to Madigan Mickey.”

There’s also a mailer designed to warn voters that a “Million dollar Madigan front group is backing Mickey Straub.” And the Durkin folks have started a new website, “Straub’s campaign is being supported by a Chicago special interest group that’s funneled more than $1 million to Mike Madigan and wants to raise your taxes even higher,” a message on the front page says.

“And it’s no surprise they want to hike Illinois’ Gas Tax by 15 cents per gallon. They even suggested that Illinois drivers should be taxed for every mile they drive…as much as $65 per month for the average family.”

I don’t know about the cost estimate, but the union has been advocating for just such a pay-by-the-mile plan during the last year or so. Ironically enough, Z worked with a coalition of road builders and Local 150 on a constitutional amendment question last year.

The website also previews some other likely attacks against Straub, including campaign fines that he allegedly didn’t pay until he decided to run for the House, and four unbalanced Burr Ridge budgets.

So, considering that Gov. Rauner funds most of Durkin’s political operation, does Z’s hiring signal that the GOP establishment in this state is finally starting to patch things up after that huge July crackup?

I wouldn’t go that far. But with Rauner’s Republican primary opponent Rep. Jeanne Ives already giving Rauner fits (just look at his bizarre “I am not in charge” press conference last week if you need proof) and Proft looking to pick off House Republican incumbents who voted for the tax hike as well as win some vacant seats, they gotta start somewhere, and Durkin’s race is a good place to do so.

But Proft isn’t backing off. His Liberty Principles PAC has been spending about $70,000 a week on cable TV ads. His latest spots feature former Chicago Bears football player Dan Hampton.

Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and

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