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Aurora mayor enters Republican contest for governor with expected financial backing from mega-donor

 Aurora Mayor Richard Irvin launches his GOP bid for governor in a campaign video Monday.
Aurora Mayor Richard Irvin launches his GOP bid for governor in a campaign video Monday.
Screenshot via YouTube
Aurora Mayor Richard Irvin launches his GOP bid for governor in a campaign video Monday.

The mayor of Illinois’ second-largest city officially launched his campaign for governor on Monday, seeking the Republican nomination in a crowded field competing to take out Gov. JB Pritzker in the November election.

Aurora Mayor Richard Irvin's forthcoming campaign announcement had been known for weeks, but he waited until Martin Luther King Jr. Day to formally jump into the race, paying homage to his great grandfather Richard Baxter Irvin, who was born a slave but after emancipation, made his way to Illinois and became a brickmason.

“I don’t just share the name Richard Irvin,” Irvin said in his official campaign launch video released Monday. “I share his dream of what Illinois could be.”

Irvin, who has pulled Democratic primary ballots in three of the last four election cycles, played on traditional economic themes while also briefly mentioning issues Republicans have coalesced around in the past year, including parental fears of “liberal” curricula leading to fights at school boards across the country.

In his campaign launch video, Irvin laid out his vision for Illinois:

“Where a growing economy provides ladders of opportunity for anyone willing to work,” the second-term mayor narrates. “Where families are safe. Where kids are educated, not indoctrinated. Where government guarantees our right to pursue the best life we can, free of oppressive taxes and regulations.”

He also played up the six years he spent as an assistant state’s attorney in both Cook and Kane counties, touting prosecutions of “gang-bangers, drug dealers and wife-beaters.” The GOP has in recent months pummeled Democratic politicians and prosecutors for policies they claim created the conditions for the uptick in violent crime and retail theft during the pandemic.

Irvin, Aurora’s first Black mayor, was raised by a young single mom and grew up poor in Aurora. After serving in the Army during Operation Desert Storm, Irvin pursued business and law degrees, worked as a prosecutor, then went into private legal practice. He served on Aurora’s city council for a decade before being elected mayor in 2017.

Ahead of his re-election as mayor last spring, Irvin said in a published candidate survey that he supported Black Lives Matter “strongly and passionately.” But he pivoted his messaging for a GOP audience in Monday’s campaign launch video, saying that a BLM sub-movement to “defund the police is “dumb, dangerous and it costs lives.”

“And I believe that all lives matter,” Irvin said in the video, co-opting language sometimes used by opponents of BLM leaders and the movement more generally.

The chairs of Illinois’ Legislative Black Caucus, a powerful faction in the General Assembly, took Irvin to task for that on Monday, accusing the GOP of “shallow opportunism.”

“The co-opting of a day of great significance to justify a political platform that from its onset seeks to strip protections from working families across Illinois, minimize the struggles of the past and roll back the progress that we’ve made to expand rights is highly disappointing,” State Sen. Robert Peters and State Reps. Kam Buckner and Sonya Harper said in a joint statement. “We have no interest in reverting, retreating or going backward. In Illinois, Black Lives Matter today, tomorrow and every day.”

Statewide slate

Irvin is running with State Rep. Avery Bourne (R-Morrisonville), a millennial rising star in the Republican Party with a seven-year record of mostly conservative votes in Springfield and downstate bonafides as the current inhabitant of her family’s 151-year old farm in central Illinois. Irvin and Bourne are two of six GOP candidates running as a slate of business-minded Republicans vying to win a statewide race for the first time since 2014, when Bruce Rauner took the governor’s mansion.

Brian Mackey
NPR Illinois

Others on the slate include State Rep. Tom Demmer (R-Dixon), another millennial who quickly rose through the ranks in Springfield to a chief budget negotiator — a credential he hopes to parlay in his bid for state treasurer — and former U.S. Attorney John Milhiser, who launched his campaign for secretary of state earlier this month after spending the last year teaching adult learners in Springfield coming off of two years as central Illinois’ top federal prosecutor.

McHenry County Auditor Shannon Teresi’s bid for comptroller and business attorney Steve Kim’s second attempt at attorney general round out the statewide slate candidate slate, though the group doesn’t include anyone vying to take out U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.)

As with Demmer’s campaign launch last week, Irvin’s opening salvo invoked the name of longtime Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan (D-Chicago), who formally exited Illinois politics nearly a year ago after an ongoing federal corruption probe named him “Public Official A” in a years-long bribery scheme orchestrated by powerful electric utility Commonwealth Edison. Though the investigation took down key allies of Madigan, the former speaker has not been charged.

“Madigan and his ilk, Governor Pritzker — they’ve done so much damage,” Irvin said in his campaign launch video. “But I promise you: we can overcome the challenges. It’s what I’m good at.”

GOP campaigns in Illinois have used Madigan as a bogeyman for years to varying degrees of success, but its potency peaked during the fall of 2020 in the months after the septuagenarian speaker was dubbed Public Official A. The failure of Pritzker’s push for a graduated income tax in addition to the first Illinois Supreme Court justice to ever lose a retention race after opponents tied both to Madigan in campaign messaging prompted Democratic leaders to call for Madigan to give up the speaker’s gavel — something he wouldn’t do for another two months until it was clear he’d lost the support he needed for another term ruling the House.

Despite having resigned all but one of his political positions last winter, Madigan’s legacy and the ongoing federal investigation that has also ensnared other Democratic figures in the past three years still loom large in Springfield. Former Rauner campaign strategist and chief of staff Mike Zolnierowicz, who successfully weaponized Madigan in the graduated income tax fight, is steering the slate behind the scenes. As long as the former speaker’s name is still fresh in voters’ minds, the slate will keep using the classic Illinois line of attack: insinuating a common theme of corruption among the state’s Democratic political class.

 Former House Speaker Mike Madigan (D-Chicago) and former GOP Gov. Bruce Rauner fought bitterly for Rauner's four years in office, including a two-year budget impasse. Both may be gone from Illinois politics, but both parties are still using the other as campaign bogeymen.
Former House Speaker Mike Madigan (D-Chicago) and former GOP Gov. Bruce Rauner fought bitterly for Rauner's four years in office, including a two-year budget impasse. Both may be gone from Illinois politics, but both parties are still using the other as campaign bogeymen.

Democrats, on the other hand, have tried to make Zolnierowicz’s former boss — and Madigan’s last major political foe — into a bogeyman of their own, conjuring painful memories of the state’s two-year budget impasse during Rauner’s term in office.

State Democratic Party Executive Director Abby Witt responded to Irvin’s announcement warning that he and the slate of GOP candidates would “pull Illinois back to the Rauner days of chaos and dysfunction,” claiming Rauner, whose primary residence is now Florida, is pulling puppet strings. She also invoked GOP mega-donor Ken Griffin, who who gave Rauner $36 million between his two campaigns and spent $54 million in a successful bid to defeat Pritzker’s signature graduated income tax proposal in 2020, in addition to floating $4.5 million to defeat former state Supreme Court Justice Tom Kilbride.

“Illinoisans will not be fooled by the Rauner Reboot slate and they will not stand idly by while Ken Griffin and Bruce Rauner try to drag our state backwards with their anti-working family agenda,” Witt said in a statement Monday. “Simply put, Illinois voters will not tolerate a slate of candidates whose only goal is to return us to the Rauner years of budget impasses, credit downgrades, draconian service cuts, and governmental crisis.”

A changing GOP, an expensive cycle

The Republican Party nationally has changed dramatically in the eight years since Rauner won, as Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and four years in the White House maligned more traditional GOP politicians — especially those aligned with business interests. Instead, a growing number of Republicans have tapped into a growing and self-perpetuating hunger among previously disaffected voters, even if it means touting baseless conspiracy theories and sometimes amplifying outright racism.

Elected state Republican leaders in Illinois — a blue island on a presidential voting map surrounded by an increasingly red Midwest — have been resistant to riding the new GOP tide. This resistance has divided the state party, a body made up of hyper-partisans who have revolted against their party chairs twice in the past decade for being too moderate.

A key faction of longtime GOP operatives, however, are placing a bet that a diverse mix of Republicans running mostly on kitchen-table issues can attract crossover voters, mostly from suburban areas. But it’s a high-stakes bet, especially given the GOP primary electorate has shifted to mostly downstate areas in the past two decades, which have gotten more conservative as former Democratic strongholds buoyed by union organizing have disappeared, along with key industries.

The bet also promises to be expensive. Griffin, the founder and CEO of Chicago-based hedge fund Citadel, this fall reportedly vowed to spend as much as $300 million on Republican candidates in the 2022 cycle. After Irvin’s announcement Monday, Griffin touted the candidate’s credentials.

“Unlike the current governor, who was born into wealth and has demonstrated little urgency or progress in improving our state, Richard Irvin’s life embodies the American Dream and a real commitment to making communities stronger,” Griffin said in a statement. “I am excited that he has decided to join the race, and look forward to the opportunity to meet him and learn more about his ideas in the weeks ahead.”

Before going toe-to-toe with Pritzker on Nov. 8, the Republicans must first face each other in an intra-party battle that would usually be heating up at this point in the year, hurtling toward a mid-March primary election. Instead, Democrats who control the legislature pushed Illinois’ primary to the end of June, citing the pandemic. By then, many in the GOP field will have been running for more than a year.

That includes State Sen. Darren Bailey (R-Xenia), who took swipes at Irvin on Monday. Bailey, a conservative firebrand who rose to prominence in GOP circles by taking Pritzker to court over COVID restrictions, took to Twitter to blast Irvin as a “pro-abortion, anti-gun Democrat that praises Pritzker and doesn’t share our principles.”

State Sen. Darren Bailey (R-Xenia) takes to Facebook Live multiple times per week to speak directly with supporters.
State Sen. Darren Bailey (R-Xenia) takes to Facebook Live multiple times per week to speak directly with supporters.
Screenshot via Facebook.
State Sen. Darren Bailey (R-Xenia) takes to Facebook Live multiple times per week to speak directly with supporters.

Bailey was alluding to a digital ad the Democratic Governors Association publicized over the weekend, which highlighted times Irvin welcomed Pritzker to Aurora as mayor and sang his praises in introducing him — a tactic the DGA will likely employ repeatedly to undermine Irvin’s conservative credentials during the primary.

On the other side of the political spectrum, Abortion rights group Personal PAC on Monday attacked the Irvin-Bourne ticket as "a threat to women's reproductive rights," referencing both Bourne's anti-abortion views and comments Irvin made during his second run for mayor in 2009.

At a candidate forum toward the end of a years-long legal battle between Planned Parenthood and the city over permits the clinic needed to open its doors, Irvin said "Planned Parenthood is bad for Aurora," taking issue with how the organization strategized establishing its location in Aurora.

Earlier this month, Bailey complained to his audience during a Facebook Live video that Irvin and the rest of the slate would be “yes people” who were “bought and paid for” by Griffin, despite himself appealing to Griffin for campaign cash in December.

Suburban businessman Gary Rabine snarked that he’d be “interested to hear what changed [Irvin’s] mind on party affiliation,” referencing Irvin’s recent history of pulling Democratic primary ballots.

“Equally compelling will be your explanation on supporting sanctuary cities and your effusive praise for Governor Pritzker,” Rabine said in a statement. “But I guess that’s what campaigns are all about.”

Rabine has previously questioned another declared Republican candidate, Jesse Sullivan, on his GOP credentials after opposition research emerged about the social justice magazine he founded in 2006 while in college. Sullivan, a tech entrepreneur, has received $11.2 million in campaign funds, the vast majority of which came from from California-based donors.

As of Monday evening, Sullivan had out-raised all of his GOP opponents. Bailey has raised nearly $1.8 million since officially launching his bid for governor in February, though that number may be short as his latest quarterly report had not been input into the state’s campaign finance tracking system as of Monday. Previous quarterly reports show strong fundraising from small-dollar donations, which are only reflected in those campaign filings. According to reporting from the Chicago Tribune, Bailey also loaned his campaign $150,000 about a month after receiving $231,475 a in federal COVID Paycheck Protection Program loan, which was forgiven.

Rabine has raised $1.7 million in the year since he announced his campaign, though about a quarter of that total is personal loans from Rabine himself. And former State Sen. Paul Schimpf (R-Waterloo), who launched his gubernatorial bid in May, has raised the least in the field with just $189,440 reported to the State Board of Elections as of Monday night. Small-dollar donations awaiting accounting in the quarterly report covering the last three months of 2021 could push that number higher, though.

Brian Mackey
NPR Illinois

But the four men’s campaign coffers combined will be dwarfed by Griffin’s planned largesse for the 2022 cycle — a figure that can be easily matched by Pritzker, also a billionaire thanks to his family’s Hyatt Hotel empire, though he divested from the business years ago to focus on investing and other ventures. The governor spent $171.5 million on his 2018 campaign, and on Friday evening, campaign finance records showed the governor dropped an additional $90 million of his personal wealth into his campaign fund.

Since launching his first campaign for the governor’s mansion in 2017, Pritzker has put nearly $304 million into his campaign fund, plus another $56 million into his failed referendum campaign to change Illinois’ constitutionally mandated flat income tax to a graduated tax structure.

The governor is also planning to spend big on down-ballot Democratic candidates in the 2022 cycle. In response to Irvin's entrance into the GOP primary race on Monday, Pritzker campaign spokeswoman Natalie Edelstein ticked off the governor's major campaign themes, including public health and fixing Illinois' finances.

"We cannot afford to let Republicans drag us backwards to a time where the middle class suffered and common sense policies like raising the minimum wage and protecting a woman’s right to choose were ignored," Edelstein said in a brief statement.

This story has been updated and expanded from the original.

Copyright 2022 NPR Illinois | 91.9 UIS. To see more, visit NPR Illinois | 91.9 UIS.

Hannah covers state government and politics for NPR Illinois and Illinois Public Radio. She previously covered the statehouse for The Daily Line and Law360, and also worked a temporary stint at the political blog Capitol Fax in 2018.