Illinois AFL-CIO backs Comptroller Topinka in slap at Simon, also endorses Quinn despite looming pension lawsuit

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SPRINGFIELD-The Illinois AFL-CIO snubbed Democrat Sheila Simon in embracing Republican Judy Baar Topinka for state comptroller and set aside tensions from its public-sector unions by endorsing Gov. Pat Quinn for another term, the group announced Thursday.

The influential union’s governing board also went out of its way to gin up its membership to fight against the nomination of Republican Bruce Rauner in the four-way GOP gubernatorial primary because of his advocacy for cutting the minimum wage and for wanting to make Illinois a right-to-work state.

The AFL-CIO’s endorsement of Topinka, who doesn’t face a primary, was an unmistakable blow to Simon, who also is running unopposed in the primary. The backing marked the first time in at least two decades the union group has backed a statewide Republican candidate.

“Judy has been around decades. She has gone to labor events and labor conferences, and she’s always availed herself to talk to union members. Those countless events and meetings she’s been to paid off for her,” Illinois AFL-CIO President Michael Carrigan told the Chicago Sun-Times. “She’s just better known throughout the state than Sheila Simon.”

Carrigan said the endorsement doesn’t necessarily mean the union will embrace Topinka over Simon when it does its endorsements in June for the general election.

Topinka wasted no time in touting her big union endorsement.

“Comptroller Topinka is pleased to have the backing of the AFL-CIO,” spokesman Brad Hahn said. “She has always had the utmost respect for the organization and is proud to have the support of the hard-working men and women that it represents.”

Simon was clearly stung by the show of support to her fall opponent, lashing out at the union brass and insisting she – not Topinka – carried the support of “rank and file working men and women across the state.”

“It’s not surprising that a small group of insiders endorsed Judy Baar Topinka behind closed doors – after their membership had already recommended no endorsement,” Simon spokesman Dave Mellet said. “Sheila is a proud union member who supports a higher minimum wage – unlie Judy Baar Topinka, who called it ‘another giveaway program.’”

Meanwhile, the Illinois AFL-CIO’s nod to Quinn, first reported Wednesday by Chicago Sun-Times columnist Michael Sneed, was an especially difficult pill to swallow for the group since its public-sector unions are about to sue the governor over pension cutbacks he enacted last month against current and retired state workers, university employees and teachers.

“The pension legislation was a tremendous blow to the public sector, and they do have sympathy from private-sector unions. But after long and candid debate, the delegates decided it’s in the best interest of the Illinois labor movement to support Gov. Quinn in an upcoming Democrat primary,” Carrigan said.

“I say again, it didn’t come without long debate about what’s happening in the public sector,” he reiterated.

Quinn expressed his gratitude to the union.

“I am grateful to the AFL-CIO for their endorsement. In the coming campaign, I intend to be a strong voice for working men and women across Illinois in order to protect the middle class,” the governor said in a prepared statement issued late Thursday by his office.

As for the Rauner resolution, Carrigan said, “Our union members have seen the Rauner commercials up and down the state. We’ve heard his rhetoric and criticism of union leaders. If he wants to give anti-union remarks, we’ll do everything we can to make sure he’s not the next governor.

“We are not naïve to the fact we have union members who vote in Republican primaries and then vote for Republicans in general elections. We’ll be reaching out to them through our education program and making sure they know what candidate Bruce Rauner is saying about their leaders and about them,” Carrigan said.

A bloc of unions plan to help fund a round of independent-expenditure commercials targeting Rauner during the primary, but Carrigan declined comment on the progress of those efforts.

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