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Illinois unions’ strength will be put to test in year ahead: Natasha Korecki

 
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NatashKorecki

Natasha Korecki

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Updated: January 30, 2014 6:39AM



Over the last year, public unions in Illinois saw some miserable times: massive public school closings in Chicago, teacher layoffs and a pension reform package that’s certain to see a court challenge.

That may all seem like sunshine and roses compared to what’s coming in 2014.

Union members may very well have the fight of their lives in front of them with the strength of public-sector unions in Illinois hinging on who becomes the state’s next governor.

The unions’ worst nightmare is Republican gubernatorial candidate Bruce Rauner, who has waged a war against “union bosses” and railed against a system that he says allows unions to control Springfield.

He also happens to have a campaign that’s gaining momentum.

Rauner has mopped up the Republican megadonor money, blown the caps by pouring in his own millions, headed up a term-limits effort and is winning GOP group endorsements, including recently the Cook County Republican Party nod.

Now he’s controlling the message: The Rauner campaign has sunk more than $1.5 million into TV commercials in which the millionaire vows to “shake up Springfield,” and free lawmakers from special interests, like powerful unions.

The irony, of course, is that Rauner, a venture capitalist, has made millions of dollars off of public pension fund investments.

Rauner is a huge charter school proponent, even having a Chicago charter in his name.

So unions are exploring whether they should do what Rauner’s opponents have been unable to accomplish so far: hit back.

With the GOP primary in March, unions may find their salvation linked to taking those GOP primary contenders off life support.

Rauner’s three opponents are struggling to register on the radar. Earlier this month, Illinois Federation of Teachers President Dan Montgomery telegraphed the move to the Sun-Times, saying Republican primary involvement could be in the cards. Montgomery and other unions were incensed about pension-reform legislation that makes wholesale changes to the structure of public-employee benefits. It had the IFT as well as other unions looking at all available political options.

A source with knowledge of the plan tells the Sun-Times there will be an “intense” campaign mounted in attack ads against Rauner. The effort is backed by unions and would steer primary voters away from Rauner. Aiding the effort, according to the source, is a former chief of staff to U.S. Rep. Aaron Schock, R-Ill., Steve Shearer.

Two of the other three Republican competitors — Sen. Kirk Dillard, R-Hinsdale, and Illinois Treasurer Dan Rutherford — opposed pension reform legislation, keeping alive their chances to get union support. Dillard has already been the beneficiary of $250,000 in teacher union money, campaign finance records show. Dillard and state Sen. Bill Brady, R-Bloomington, are demonstrating dismal fundraising so far. Rutherford has remained consistent in bringing in money, but none of the three can compete with the $100,000 checks Rauner is bringing in with ease. And Rutherford and the others aren’t generating enough cash to sustain a TV ad campaign to target Rauner’s vulnerabilities, including his ties to Democratic Mayors Richard M. Daley and Rahm Emanuel.

Attack ads against Rauner from a third party could be a game-changer in this race.

A Sun-Times analysis that looked at money behind the top 10 public unions in Illinois showed the groups — including SEIU, AFSCME, AFL-CIO, IEA, IFT and others — have plowed more than $100 million into state campaign committees since 2000. Their members number in the tens of thousands in the state. So when it comes to political muscle, money and capital, right now, unions have it.

All of this goes right into the Rauner playbook. The biggest beneficiary of union money since 2000 was Pat Quinn, having taken in $7.4 million from the 10 public employee unions, a recent Sun-Times analysis shows.

But remember, unions aren’t all that pleased with Democrats. They’re angered at Quinn and the Democrat-led General Assembly for pushing through a pension reform package they say penalizes their members for the Legislature’s long-term inability to properly pay the state’s bills. Labor bristled when Quinn brought on Paul Vallas as his running mate, most recently a former Connecticut superintendent who unions basically chased out of town there.

Still, you can bet that Rauner will talk about union money as ammunition against Quinn in a general election.

But first he has to get there.

In the meantime, Rauner’s team sent out a press release warning that unions threatened to “hijack” the GOP primary.

The campaign’s plea: Send more money.

For more political analysis, visit our Early & Often blog at:
suntm.es/politicsblog.

Email: nkorecki@suntimes.com

Twitter: @natashakorecki



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