Back in the old, old days, Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley would pack passenger trains full of loyalists and send them all to the Illinois State Fair’s Democrat Day rally, where they were treated to rousing speeches by party leaders and candidates. Gov. Rod Blagojevich kept that tradition alive on a somewhat smaller scale by chartering buses filled with supporters.
For decades, both parties’ state fair rallies have been considered the unofficial kick-off to Illinois’ campaign season. In odd-numbered years between elections, candidates have often used the rallies to showcase their campaigns ahead of the following spring primary season.
Many of those potential candidates make big speeches and bus their supporters to Springfield to show their strength and then never even file to run for election, realizing that they don’t have what it takes. Illinois is a bigger state than most people realize. And its regional and hyper-local politics can be maddening to novices with big egos.
Most other off-year speakers are weeded out by the party primaries. By the time of the August event ahead of the even-year general election, the number of candidates who show up to speak is whittled down to a handful.
Aside from the potential candidates, the state fair treats the political class (campaign contributors, labor leaders, legislative staff, etc.) to a big get-together before the November elections (or the legislative fall veto session, as the case may be), so lots of candidates up and down the ballot use the opportunity to raise money.
And the rallies always provide political reporters with something to write about in what would otherwise be a slow news month when most normal people are on vacation or have otherwise completely tuned out politics of all kinds.
But the annual event really started to lose its appeal for the Democratic powers that be in 2012, when AFSCME packed the Democrat Day rally with thousands of green-shirted protesters who angrily and loudly shouted down every Democratic speaker, including Gov. Pat Quinn and House Speaker Michael Madigan. AFSCME and other public employee unions were furious at Quinn and the Democratic leadership for pushing pension reforms that would reduce their retirement income and benefits.
The following year, after a massive pension reform bill had passed and was signed into law and Gov. Quinn picked up a Democratic primary opponent, Quinn canceled the rally’s speeches. The Democrats still had free food and beer at the traditional Director’s Lawn venue, but live music blared from the loudspeakers instead of politicians’ voices. Republicans, for their part, required that attendees obtain tickets in advance before being allowed access to their event, mainly out of concern that the Democrats could try to disrupt their shindig the way AFSCME did to them.
By then, though, the focus had already started to shift away from the Democrats’ rally to a morning brunch at a local hotel hosted by county party chairs. The speeches given at that event were largely repeated verbatim at the afternoon fairgrounds rally, so lots of party regulars eventually got bored and didn’t even bother attending the afternoon rally. Why sit in the hot sun and oppressive humidity (or pouring rain, as the case may be) to listen to the exact same speeches you just heard a few hours earlier?
Last year, Speaker Madigan canceled the state fair rally altogether. He never much cared for it anyway. One year, reporters literally surrounded his golf cart when he refused to answer questions and wouldn’t let him move. Plus, a huge number of Democratic candidates for statewide office that year would’ve made for an unwieldy and divisive event (particularly since some candidates were running on pointedly anti-Madigan platforms).
The annual Democrat Day is managed by the Democratic Party of Illinois unless the party holds the governor’s office. But it doesn’t look like DPI will be all that involved with the rally this August.
“I suspect whatever goes on at the fairgrounds will be done more by the statewide campaigns than anybody else,” Madigan’s spokesman, Steve Brown, said the other day.
Brown said the rally “largely duplicates what the county chairs do,” and it had become “less and less an opportunity to communicate with people.”
It does appear that the fairgrounds rally will be revived, although Democratic gubernatorial nominee J.B. Pritzker’s campaign is staying mum about what it will look like. They’re still “working on the details,” I was told not long ago, but are “excited for a great day.”
Frankly, the whole thing needs a reboot. Ditch the hokey straw bales and endless dreary speeches and give us something interesting.
Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and CapitolFax.com.