To many of his Democratic colleagues, he is a turncoat. But state Rep. Ken Dunkin sees himself as a bipartisan, good faith negotiator.
The South Side Democrat said Wednesday through weeks of talks with Gov. Bruce Rauner, he was able to change the Republican governor’s mind regarding child care cuts and eligibility scores for aid to the elderly and disabled.
“I pressed him consistently. I encouraged him,” Dunkin told the Sun-Times. “It was not to have political upmanship on someone.
“It was simply to serve as a negotiator to make something happen. And we did it. The governor kept his word. And I kept my word, not to be a part of going against what he and I negotiated.”
But if Dunkin solidified his relationship with a powerful Republican ally, he also picked up a likely new enemy — unions.
The representative’s stand against two key bills may very well put him in a hotly contested primary.
Last year, the Chicago Teachers Union unsuccessfully targeted Democratic Rep. Christian Mitchell over his support for pension reform.
On Tuesday, Jaquie Algee, vice president of SEIU Healthcare Illinois came out swinging, saying Dunkin’s actions “showed that he’s willing to use vulnerable people as political pawns, along with our governor.”
A union spokesman on Wednesday wouldn’t comment on whether the union will back an opponent for Dunkin in the March primary.
“I expect to have a primary, a general, an independent candidate,” Dunkin said.
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On Tuesday, Dunkin sided with Rauner on two votes — one that would have reversed cuts the governor made to child care, and the other which would have restored cuts to community care for the elderly and people with disabilities. The bills also would have curtailed Rauner’s powers to make such changes in the future.
Rauner on Monday announced he’d reverse some cuts made last summer because of the lack of a budget. He said he’d be willing to roll back child care eligibility restrictions so more families that have had access to child care would be able to get help.
Republican legislators said the governor’s compromises made the bills unnecessary. House Democrats pushed ahead, saying they wanted future stability for aid recipients, but they fell one vote short of passing the bills.
Dunkin described a nearly two-hour caucus prior to the session as “intense” and “the most animated and raucous caucus in quite some time.”
Dunkin said he told House Democrats to trust Rauner and his agreement to restore funding. After Dunkin abstained from voting Democratic Rep. Jaime Andrade took Dunkin’s nameplate out and threw it on the Republican side of the floor.
“I saw it. It’s OK. He got a little emotional. I hugged him. I hugged him and kissed him on the forearm,” Dunkin said.
After the session Tuesday, House Speaker Mike Madigan held a news conference, allowing child care, elder care and disabled care representatives to bash Dunkin.
But Dunkin said he has no “vendetta” against Madigan, who on Tuesday said the two hadn’t spoken since August.
“I don’t have a dispute with the speaker. I don’t have a problem with the speaker. I just don’t work for him,” Dunkin said.
He also pledged his support to unions, despite missing a Sept. 2 session in which the override of a bill allowing arbitration in favor of strikes or lockouts failed, again by just one vote — Dunkin’s.
As unions decide whether or not to target Dunkin, he’s pledging his support.
“I am strongly against trying to dismantle the unions. People should have a right to unionize,” Dunkin said, adding he would have voted for the no strike bill if he had been in town.
He also urged other House Democrats to “compromise” with the governor.
“I think I am coming to terms with him being able to listen to reason. He’s tenacious. I’m tenacious. I’m insistent. I’m passionate about doing what I need to do for our citizen in the state,” Dunkin said. “We have to, all of us, come up with a relationship, at least a professional relationship to get something done.”