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Democrats pitch unity at State Fair — but Pritzker and state party chair Kelly keep more than social distance

Gov. J.B. Pritzker downplayed the failure of him and U.S. Robin Kelly to appear together. “Lots of people had lots of things to do,” Pritzker said. “There’s some people who try to write that people are boycotting or not going to something because they don’t want to — they don’t want to be there. The truth is that we’re all very busy.”

Gov. J.B. Pritzker speaks during Governor’s Day at the Illinois State Fair on the Director’s Lawn in Springfield on Wednesday.
Gov. J.B. Pritzker speaks during Governor’s Day at the Illinois State Fair on the Director’s Lawn in Springfield on Wednesday.
Justin L. Fowler/The State Journal-Register via AP

SPRINGFIELD — Democrats touted their leadership and unity Wednesday in their return to the state’s capitol city for Governor’s Day at the Illinois State Fair.

But the absence of the state’s top executive from a brunch pep rally cast doubt on that solidarity even as the head of the Democratic organization hosting the event tried to downplay any suggestion of discord within the party’s ranks.

“Whatever you may read in the press, Democrats in Illinois are united,” said Kristina Zahorik, the president of the Illinois Democratic County Chairs’ Association. “There’s too much at stake to be divided.”

U.S. Rep. Robin Kelly, the chair of the Illinois Democratic Party, stumped for the entire Democratic ticket — including herself, Gov. J.B. Pritzker and other elected Democrats — during the brunch.

Kelly, who beat out Pritzker’s chosen candidate to take the state party reins, downplayed the governor’s absence, even though the Chicago Democrat hosted his own event later in the day.

“That’s Pritzker’s choice,” the south suburban congresswoman said. “Everybody makes their own decisions on what they want to do.”

U.S. Rep. Robin Kelly, the chair of the Illinois Democratic Party, speaks at the Illinois Democratic County Chairs’ Association’s brunch on Wednesday.
U.S. Rep. Robin Kelly, the chair of the Illinois Democratic Party, speaks at the Illinois Democratic County Chairs’ Association’s brunch on Wednesday.
Blue Room Stream

Democrats did all seem to agree that there was a lot on the line in next year’s midterm elections, which often see the party of the president lose in contests across the country.

Baking in the heat, politicos and their supporters fanned themselves with paper fans that bore the words “I’m a fan of the Illinois Democratic County Chairs Association” at the brunch.

The county chairs’ Wednesday brunch is designed to kick off Governor’s Day events at the fair, even though it was held under a tent outside a hotel off the fairgrounds this year in deference to Pritzker’s safety concerns — only for him to opt to send a video rather than attend in person.

Forging ahead anyway, Democrats billed themselves as the only party with the vision to move the state — and the country — forward ahead of next year’s midterm election.

“Who better to build back this country than Democrats?” Zahorik asked. “We believe in the promise of America, and in good government, we use facts and science to dictate our policy ... we Democrats welcome the chance to build a more perfect union and we Democrats have the vision to do just that.”

The Democrats are the party who “fought” former GOP Gov. Bruce Rauner and former President Donald Trump and won, Zahorik said. But to keep passing legislation such as the infrastructure package that passed the Senate recently and see funds continue to trickle to families thanks to the child tax credit, Democrats must hold onto Congress and other offices, Zahorik and others said.

Pritzker chose to skip the morning’s events in favor of family plans in Chicago, but made it back to Springfield to throw his own rally on the Director’s Lawn on the fairgrounds Wednesday afternoon. His event featured the state’s constitutional officers and was largely a reprisal of the morning’s events — but with Pritzker in attendance.

Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker gets a “Pritzer Rocks” sign from Peter Janko, Democratic state central committeeman for 14th Congressional District of Illinois, during Governor’s Day at the Illinois State Fair in Springfield on Wednesday.
Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker gets a “Pritzer Rocks” sign from Peter Janko, Democratic state central committeeman for 14th Congressional District of Illinois, during Governor’s Day at the Illinois State Fair in Springfield on Wednesday.
Justin L. Fowler/The State Journal-Register via AP

At the afternoon event, a band played funk and soul music before Pritzker pitched Democrats and their policies saying “over and over, it’s Democrats who deliver for the people of Illinois.”

Lt. Gov. Juliana Stratton, Illinois Treasurer Mike Frerichs, Comptroller Susana Mendoza, Attorney General Kwame Raoul and Secretary of State Jesse White all spoke at Pritzker’s event, focusing their time at the mic on urging the election of more Democrats.

Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White gets a standing ovation after delivering his remarks at the Illinois State Fair on Wednesday.
Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White gets a standing ovation after delivering his remarks during Governor’s Day at the Illinois State Fair on the Director’s Lawn in Springfield on Wednesday.
Justin L. Fowler/The State Journal-Register via AP

Kelly attended Pritzker’s rally, but did not speak or sit on the stage with the statewide elected officials who did address the crowd.

Surrounded by reporters afterward on the lawn, Pritzker brushed off questions about not attending the morning’s event.

“Lots of people had lots of things to do,” Pritzker said. “I’m excited about the fact that we had so many Democrats here, and the people who could make it did — I’m excited about that.

“There’s some people who try to write that people are boycotting or not going to something because they don’t want to — they don’t want to be there. The truth is that we’re all very busy. ... I try to get to everything that I can, and I support every Democrat that was at the IDCCA event this morning.”

Gov. J.B. Pritzker speaks during Governor’s Day at the Illinois State Fair on Wednesday.
Gov. J.B. Pritzker speaks during Governor’s Day at the Illinois State Fair on the Director’s Lawn on Wednesday.
Justin L. Fowler/The State Journal-Register via AP

The governor committed to supporting his own campaign fund, Blue Wave Illinois, to help support down-ballot candidates and political organizations, but didn’t give a clear answer about whether or not he’ll contribute to the Democratic Party of Illinois’s coffers now that its party structure has been clarified.

As a federal officeholder, Kelly — who beat Pritzker’s pick, Ald. Michelle Harris, to lead the state party in March — is prohibited from raising “soft money,” which goes toward state elections.

The governor tried to portray the party as unified behind a common goal.

“As you know we’re all working together to make sure we elect Democrats up and down the ticket,” Pritzker said. “I did that in 2018, continued to support Democrats everywhere in our state and I’m going to do that in 2021.”

Last year’s cancellation of the Illinois State Fair — and Democrat Day and Republican Day events — was the first since 1945, when World War II pushed the festivities into a hiatus.

The fair is famous for its corndogs and lemon shake-ups, but Pritzker offered his own shake up last week when he said he would not attend the county chairs’ brunch due to COVID concerns.

The association moved their event outside shortly after Pritzker expressed those concerns, but the governor had already made plans in Chicago and said he’d still miss the event.

That didn’t deter the politicking Wednesday.

Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul speaks during Governor’s Day at the Illinois State Fair on Wednesday.
Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul points to Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker as he speaks during Governor’s Day at the Illinois State Fair on Wednesday.
Justin L. Fowler/The State Journal-Register via AP

Declaring his expected candidacy for reelection at the brunch, Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul reprised a campaign slogan from four years ago, calling his work in the office “the work of my life — and I’m just getting started.”

Candidates vying to succeed Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White gave brief speeches at the morning’s brunch. Later Wednesday, White said he expects to make a decision on who to support in the race sometime in January.

“It’s too early right now,” White said. “I have a sneaking suspicion there will be a few more people getting into that race.”

Illinois Republicans will host their own festivities Thursday on the Director’s Lawn.