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BROWN: Labor leader hedging bets with bipartisan anti-Rauner strategy

State Sen. Sam McCann, R-Plainview, speaking on the floor of the Illinois Senate floor at the Capitol in Springfield in 2017. | Rich Saal/The State Journal-Register, distributed by the Associated Press

Jim Sweeney’s Operating Engineers Local 150 was among the first to endorse J.B. Pritzker’s campaign for the Democratic nomination for governor.

That hasn’t stopped Sweeney from working just as hard to also find a Republican candidate to take on Gov. Bruce Rauner in the GOP primary.

It’s a fairly unusual two-track approach that Sweeney believes more labor unions should employ in recognition of the differences of political opinion among their membership.

Sweeney noted that 40 percent of building trades workers identify as Republican.

“So I’ve got to give those members, and I think all labor leaders need to be giving members, a choice in both parties,” said Sweeney, a one-time Democrat who now considers himself more of an independent.

OPINION

Sweeney is trying to recruit Sen. Sam McCann, a union-friendly Republican from Plainview, to make the race. McCann has said he is considering a run, but has not committed. As far as I can tell, there is no Plan B if he doesn’t.

“[McCann] definitely wants to run,” Sweeney said Monday. “The key is having enough support, and more importantly, the money we would need to support a campaign and not put him on a suicide mission.”

That means convincing “like-minded labor leaders” to form a coalition to support him, Sweeney said.

McCann survived a brutal 2016 primary challenge to a candidate backed by Rauner after McCann crossed swords with the governor on an important vote involving the state’s contract with AFSCME employees.

McCann’s survival has given him an unusual degree of independence from Rauner, which he recently flexed by being the only Senate Republican to vote to override the governor’s veto of school funding legislation that Rauner contends is a Chicago bailout.

Sweeney admits not everyone is keen on the idea of labor splitting its allegiance in the primary season.

“People worry about ‘You’re backing J.B. and he’s going to need your guys’ votes in the primary,” Sweeney said.

“The key is, say if Sam McCann won in the primary, I don’t care who wins in Springfield. I don’t have somebody that’s out to destroy the labor movement, and destroy middle class and working class people, to destroy the schools and the teachers,” he said, referring to Rauner.

Sweeney then walked back the “I don’t care” part.

“We’re backing J.B. I do care if he wins. I’d like to see him win. But more importantly, I’d love to see Rauner not be in the race as the choice for my members that are going to vote Republican no matter what, which means that maybe all they’re going to do is not vote at all,” Sweeney said.

“This idea that all union members in this state vote Democrat is crazy. They don’t. That’s how Trump won southern Illinois,” he said.

Sweeney, a South Sider, is President-Business Manager of International Union of Operating Engineers Local 150, which recently invested $2 million in an ownership stake in the Chicago Sun-Times.

I ran into him at the City Club of Chicago where we both came to hear a speech from new Sun-Times CEO Edwin Eisendrath.

Although his union has a long history of supporting Republicans, Sweeney has been among Rauner’s most ardent foes from the start after correctly identifying the governor as a serious and determined threat to unions.

The Operating Engineers backed Kirk Dillard in the 2014 GOP primary over Rauner and later gave financial support in the general election to a Libertarian candidate in hopes of siphoning votes away from Rauner.

Sweeney said he believes Rauner is beatable in a GOP primary.

“The poll numbers are still good for him, but that’s without a viable candidate,” Sweeney said, arguing that Rauner’s support is especially soft in central and southern Illinois.

Unlike Sweeney, I generally only play in one primary at a time, and it’s not likely to be the Republican one this election. But it’s fun to think about.