Jim Dey | Illinois Democrats are in charge, but not in accord

Jim Dey | Illinois Democrats are in charge, but not in accord

While Illinois Democrats are solidly united under the leadership of new Gov. J.B. Pritzker and state party Chairman Michael Madigan, the speaker of the Illinois House, they haven't been able to avoid the schisms that have rival factions of Democrats in Congress sorely at odds.

Indeed, three of them — U.S. Reps. Daniel Lipinski and Cheri Bustos and, to a lesser extent, U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin — are embroiled in political challenges to their leadership led by new party firebrands.

How these fights are resolved will determine what kind of congressional Democrat represents Illinois and the nation — traditional, up-from-the-ranks liberals or more ideologically-driven purists determined to drag the party farther to the left.

The recent mayoral election in Chicago is instructive about the party's direction, but not just because outsider lawyer and Mayor-elect Lori Lightfoot came out of nowhere to conquer the city's political establishment.

Also elected — to the city council — were a handful of avowed socialists who can be expected to spend as much time addressing social issues as they will more traditional concerns like garbage pickup and street maintenance.

That was followed by the recent news that at least one challenger will continue to try to make inroads among the Democrats in Illinois' congressional delegation.

Last year, leftist challenger Marie Newman opposed party regular and longtime incumbent U.S. Rep. Daniel Lipinski, whom she branded too conservative and excoriated for his opposition to abortion.

Backed by kindred spirts in the party, including U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky, Newman came very close to defeating Lipinski in the Democratic Party primary election.

After that near-political-death experience, Lipinski easily won the general election.

Newman recently announced that she intends to take on Lipinski in the March 2020 primary.

One political observer speculated that she'll have a good chance to win then because "the 2020 congressional primary will be held on the same day as the presidential primary, which means the supporters of Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris and Pete Buttigieg — candidates whose philosophies are inimical to Lipinski's — are going to show up at the polls."

It's not at all clear that Lipinski's political philosophy is "inimical" to those presidential candidates.

He's a traditional liberal Democrat and former college professor who's in touch with the attitudes of his diverse 3rd District located in southwest Chicago and suburbs.

But he's definitely not the hardcore leftist that Newman portrays herself to be. That will matter in a primary election where each party's base voters turn out in droves.

National Democratic Party leaders, including 17th District Rep. Bustos, are concerned that these attempted party purges will sow discord and voter alienation that could cost them their current majority in the U.S. House.

But the fight is on, the result being that Bustos, whose district includes Peoria and Rockford, is feuding with fellow Democrat U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez over the issue.

As chairwoman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Bustos is adamantly opposed to the New Yorker's plans to lead a purge of Democratic incumbents in next year's primary elections.

Bustos recently infuriated Ocasio-Cortez and her supporters by announcing a new rule that breaks the DCCC's business ties with any political consultants and pollsters who work for primary challengers. Anger generated by Bustos' action then overflowed into the public square.

"House Democratic Campaign Arm Nears War With Liberals Over Primary Fights," headlined a recent New York Times story that said the combatants are approaching "open warfare" over House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's efforts to "shut down party challenges."

How that will affect Newman's opposition to Lipinski remains to be seen. Newman reports she's already devoting considerable energy to campaigning, particularly in city wards she neglected last year.

But traditional Chicago pols have ways of dealing with the Newmans of the world.

One is to put a third candidate's name on the ballot, theoretically dividing the anti-Lipinski vote. That's what Chicago ward heelers did to former President Barack Obama in 2000, a member of the Illinois Senate when he challenged and lost badly to incumbent U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush in the Democratic primary.

So it's convenient for Lipinski that another Democrat besides Newman also has announced a challenge to Lipinski — political unknown Abe Matthew, a 32-year-old personal injury lawyer.

While Newman is leading a high-profile intraparty fight that will draw the concern of party leaders, there's another squabble.

Naperville state Rep. Anna Stava-Murray, who narrowly won an Illinois House seat in a Republican-leaning district, says she'll challenge Democratic U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin for her party's nomination.

Durbin, a longtime incumbent, is likely to remain an overwhelming favorite to be renominated and re-elected.

Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached at jdey@news-gazette.com or 217-351-5369.

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