Illinois Democrats, set back on their heels by an "epic struggle" with first-year Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner, pledged Thursday to stand shoulder-to-shoulder in opposition while a potentially bruising primary for a U.S. Senate race took shape.
With control of both houses of the General Assembly, the party marked Democrat Day at the Illinois State Fair in the unfamiliar position of defense, locked in a row with Rauner over a state budget.
The first-time officeholder, carrying an agenda to curb union power, ended a dozen years of Democratic residence in the governor's office last fall in an election drawing fewer than half of eligible voters to the polls.
"When we vote, we win. When we don't, we get a government that doesn't like us, look like us, and sure as hell has got an agenda to put us out of business," labor leader Edward Smith said in a keynote address at a downtown morning brunch before the rally at the fairgrounds. "We've got to leave this room fired up. ... I'll give the governor one thing: He's united the hell out of us."
It marked a day of jabs at Rauner for attacks on the middle class, the minimum wage, labor rights and working families.
While most statewide candidates don't go toe-to-toe again for more than three years, there is a Senate race in 2016, with freshman Republican Sen. Mark Kirk facing re-election. U.S. Rep. Tammy Duckworth told party faithful she's the best candidate — a boast backed by a videotaped endorsement from Dick Durbin, the Prairie State's senior senator — while former federal prosecutor Andrea Zopp took advantage of the bucolic state-fair setting to announce her candidacy.
"What we're hearing now is that there is an assault on the middle class, we have a declining middle class," Zopp said. "That opportunity that my parents had, that enabled me to succeed, is declining, that door to opportunity is closing. That's why I'm running for the U.S. Senate, because we have to fight that."
Cook County Commissioner Richard Boykin and state Sen. Napolean Harris of Harvey also spoke as Senate hopefuls.
A day earlier, giddy Republicans gathered at the fair to celebrate Governor's Day, weathering the chants of hundreds of union protesters across the street. They derided cuts to child-care and in-home services that Rauner says he had to make to manage spending while attempting to reach a permanent, yearlong budget agreement with legislative Democrats. But he's angered Democrats by insisting that they first adopt measures he says will spur investment in Illinois and restore faith in politics. Democrats say the measures Rauner calls business-friendly are anti-union.
"Democrats in the Legislature today are engaged in an epic struggle with a Republican governor," House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, said. "Illinois has a Republican governor who thinks that Illinois budget-making should be used and leveraged to bring down the wage rates all across the state and bring down the standard of living of working people."
Senate President John Cullerton, uneasy with plaudits from Rauner for a cooperative spirit while the governor demonizes Madigan, added, "The Senate Democrats are willing to compromise."
"We are willing to work with Gov. Rauner," the Chicago Democrat said, "but we don't work for Gov. Rauner."