Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Unions target far-right Illinois state representatives

A white man with short brown hair wearing a red colored half-zip pullover points as he speaks into a microphone.
Pat Nabong
Chicago Sun-Times
State Rep. Blaine Wilhour speaks during a rally for Illinois gubernatorial candidate Darren Bailey at Daley Plaza in Chicago, Sunday, Nov. 6, 2022. Labor unions are funneling money to try to defeat Wilhour and another far right state lawmaker.

Unions representing teachers, laborers and police officers are spending big bucks to try primarying southern Illinois Republicans.

Labor unions representing teachers, laborers, firefighters and police officers are spending more than $250,000 to try unseating two conservative House Freedom Caucus members in southeastern Illinois.

State Reps. Adam Niemerg, R-Dieterich, and Blaine Wilhour, R-Beecher City, both face opponents in their March 19th primaries that have both enjoyed large infusions of cash and in-kind services from public sector unions since the beginning of this year.

“My opponent has surrendered to the far left and has sold his soul to the most radical group in state government politics,” Wilhour claimed in a news release, saying teachers’ unions like the Illinois Education Association and the Illinois Federation of Teachers are behind, among other things, opposition to the Second Amendment, promoting mask mandates and encouraging children to transition to a different gender.

“My opponent is a puppet for the most extreme leftists in the state,” he said.

It’s unusual for unions to get so heavily involved in southern Illinois Republican primary politics. The thousands of dollars the Illinois Federation of Teachers has sent GOP candidates over the last year, for example, pales in comparison to the amount they’ve sent Democratic candidates over the same period.

RELATED: How to vote in the March 19 Illinois presidential primary

But Dr. Dick Simpson, a former Chicago alderman and professor emeritus at the University of Illinois Chicago, says it’s not unusual for unions to work against candidates diametrically opposed to their values.

“There’s a pretty big split between the Freedom Caucus and union agendas, not only the direct union issues but also the social agenda that many unions have,” said Simpson. “It’s to the advantage of the unions to try and get more moderate Republicans. Even if they’re not going to vote with them 100% of the time, at least their most vocal opponents will be out of the legislature.”

Wilhour’s opponent is Matt Hall of Vandalia, a former member of the Vandalia School Board. His campaign committee had $1,100 available at the end of 2023. But through the middle of February, State Board of Elections data show unions have donated $93,500 in cash and contributed roughly $63,000 in advertising and consulting services.

Niemerg’s opponent is Jim Acklin – the acting mayor of Ogden, interim superintendent of Edgar County CUSD #6 and a former candidate for state representative. His campaign committee – Citizens for Jim Acklin – was created on February 8, 2024 and received $98,500 in contributions the following week – a majority of that from the IEA.

“We believe our public officials should support public education and unions,” said Al Llorens, president of the IEA and chair of the union’s political action committee, IPACE, in a statement. “Matt Hall and Jim Acklin are best prepared to represent the people of the 110th district and 102nd district. Hall and Acklin are committed to advancing public education and to supporting the hardworking union members of Illinois.”

Both Niemerg and Wilhour faced challenges to their candidacies this cycle. The Board of Elections overruled Wilhour’s challenge and he remains on the ballot in the 110th district as a Republican.

Niemerg, however, was kicked off the ballot after the Board upheld a challenge alleging notarization problems. He’s now running as a write-in candidate in the 102nd district with Acklin also running as a write-in. Niemerg, like Wilhour, blames the teachers’ unions for initiating the challenges.

“This is a Democrat plant running against me,” Niemerg told WBEZ. “A woke progressive with money dumped in by the woke teachers unions."

The Illinois Laborers’ Legislative Committee is also involved, sending $10,000 to both Hall and Acklin. The Fraternal Order of Police’s Chicago Lodge, the Illinois FOP, Associated Fire Fighters of Illinois and the Chicagoland Operators Joint Labor-Management PAC all donated to Hall.

Wilhour says public sector unions, specifically teachers unions, aren’t aligned with his district’s values and voters will tell them so at the ballot box.

“It pisses [my constituents] off, this advertising that they’re doing is not working,” Wilhour said. “Matt Hall is going to struggle to show his face in our home county from this point on because people just don’t like it.”

Alex Degman is a Statehouse reporter with WBEZ.