Jay Travis and Will Guzzardi.
Back in May when the Illinois House voted for Senate Bill 1, many of us called on our union and political leadership to mount primary campaigns against those state representatives who voted to cut our constitutionally protected pensions.
Some we would win and some we would lose. Still, the message would be sent that there was a political price to pay for violating the public trust, for breaking a covenant, breaching a contract and ignoring the law.
At the state level, the leadership of the state’s public employee unions turned their backs on this strategy, sat on their collective hands, and created the present situation of actually encouraging voting for the recent and long-time state chairman of ALEC in the Republican primary for Governor.
In Chicago, the teachers union took a different path. In two state rep races the CTU took a risk and backed challengers to incumbent Democrats.
The pension issue is central to both races.
Early on, the challenge by Will Guzzardi in my 39th district attracted media attention. Will had challenged Machine incumbent Toni Berrios two years ago and came with in a hair of winning. This time it could be different. He has greater name recognition. He has more volunteers – passionate and committed ones. The kind that you can’t buy with a patronage job.
His position on public employee public pensions is unequivocal. The CTU is behind him. Even the anti-pension Tribune has endorsed him, which they explain that they do in spite of his strong pension stand.
Of course it helps (and hurts) to have slime dogs like Berrios and Madigan as your opponents.
A few miles to the east and south is the 26th District. There the CTU is backing Jay Travis. When Jay announced, nobody thought she could beat the incumbent Chris Mitchell. Mitchell is backed by the money bags of the Democratic Party, the regulars and County Board President Toni Preckwinkle.
But Mitchell is vulnerable. He voted against pensions in a district where 30% of the voters are public employees.
Even the pro-business Crain’s admits the problem.
Here, first-term Rep. Christian Mitchell, a fast-rising, 27-year-old Democrat who voted for the statewide pension overhaul last year, is facing a tougher-than-expected primary challenge.
Teachers unions at the city, state and national level are mobilizing scores of volunteers and have secured more than $300,000 to potentially spend on behalf of Ms. Travis’ campaign, even if winning appears to be a long shot. Meanwhile, on the Northwest Side, the union is mounting a less costly bid to unseat Rep. Maria “Toni” Berrios, daughter of Cook County Assessor and Cook County Democratic Party Chairman Joseph Berrios.
The effort signals a bold shift in strategy for the CTU, which for years has doled out donations in a mostly even-handed fashion. Now, the union is targeting Democratic incumbents perceived to be vulnerable in the March 18 primary. The union’s message: CTU support should not be taken for granted.
“The teachers aren’t passive like they were 10 years ago,” says Sean Howard, a political consultant in Chicago with close ties to many of the city’s African-American political leaders.
After barely passing a pension bill in December for state workers and teachers outside Chicago, the Illinois General Assembly is under pressure to restructure the budget-busting outlays facing not only Chicago Public Schools but the city itself, which next year is to police and fire pensions by $590 million.
“Springfield is where we have to look to change the landscape politically,” says CTU President Karen Lewis, who lives in Mr. Mitchell’s 26th District. “I don’t know what the chances are, but I know we are not just going to quit.”
There will be time enough to draw all the lessons after March 18th, the date of Illinois’ primary election. Early voting has already begun.
But one lesson we can already take away is that there is no losing when our union leadership makes it politically costly for politicians to break a promise made to union members.