Watch now: Illinois Republicans turn focus to public safety as 2022 campaign issue
SPRINGFIELD — Illinois Democrats have gotten used to legislative success over the past three years.
The party has used its control of the governor’s office and its supermajorities in the General Assembly to shepherd through landmark clean energy legislation, marijuana legalization, additional protections for abortion rights, a major capital construction program and sweeping criminal justice reform, among other items.
But there have been instances where the party has been defeated, such as the failure of the 2020 graduated income tax referendum. Another was the defeat of Illinois Supreme Court Justice Tom Kilbride in his retention election that year.
In both instances, Republican opposition featured a winning message and lots of money to back it up. That money by-and-large came from hedge fund manager Ken Griffin, the state’s wealthiest man, who alone sank more than $50 million into the successful effort to defeat the “fair tax.”
Griffin was back in the headlines this week for comments he made at the Economic Club of Chicago about the future of the state and its largest city. Griffin painted a bleak picture, going as far as saying that he’s considering moving his company’s headquarters from Chicago due to rising crime.
“Chicago is like Afghanistan on a good day,” Griffin said. “And that’s a problem.”
This is hyperbole, of course. But it echoes what many Republicans — both moderates and conservatives — more or less have been saying for months, interjecting crime with taxes and corruption as the largest issues facing the state.
Don Tracy, the chairman of the Illinois Republican Party, told me earlier this year that the party would run on its core values in 2022, which he described as a “strong economy, strong public safety, strong families, strong schools and strong freedoms.”
In a sense, everything that is old is new again. Republicans have run campaigns accusing Democrats of being soft on crime for decades. It’s part of the playbook.
But, party officials appear to see a legitimate opening on this topic — they have certainly been testing out campaign messaging ahead of next year’s elections.
“Their message is weak, they’ve turned their back on law enforcement, we have a terrible situation regarding public safety in the state of Illinois and people are going to be educated about that,” Illinois House Minority Leader Jim Durkin, speaking of Democrats, told me at Republican Day at the Illinois State Fair in August. “I’m gonna spend a lot of time talking to people throughout the state of Illinois of what Democrats have done to public safety and also our law enforcement officers. It’s extremely important to people, probably the most important issue in Chicago right now.”
There is a sense that Democrats — especially suburban legislators — may be vulnerable to attacks on their records on public safety issues.
In January, most Democratic lawmakers voted for a sweeping criminal justice reform bill, later signed by Gov. JB Pritzker, that phases out cash bail and requires all police to wear body cameras by 2025. Though hailed by some as nation-leading reform, it has been widely criticized by law enforcement groups.
If this keeps up, expect Republicans to keep on the issue.
On Wednesday, Republicans in the Illinois Senate unveiled the “Fund the Police Act,” which would appropriate $100 million in grant funds that can be accessed by police departments to hire more officers and purchase equipment. It would also stiffen sentencing guidelines for gun crimes and allow counties to opt out of certain provisions of the criminal justice reform law.
“Legislative leaders found time to ram through multiple controversial bills this year that do nothing to keep people safe. Meanwhile people are literally dying in the streets, school buses are getting shot at, and families are afraid to go outside,” said state Sen. Chapin Rose, R-Mahomet. “It’s well past time for the state to do something. These bills will help our law enforcement community to finally stem the tide of violence that has washed over our state.”
Democrats have supermajorities in the General Assembly, meaning the proposal will likely never see a vote or even a hearing. But it serves as a messaging bill that outlines where Republicans stand on this topic.
State Sen. Robert Peters, D-Chicago, chairman of the Senate Black Caucus, said in response to the proposal that it would double down on failed polices of the past.
“Make no mistake, we support expanding public safety for all and not just a few because it is our communities, our friends, and our loved ones who are often traumatized, but the answer doesn’t just come in the decades long status quo policies of more prison sentences,” Peters said. “It comes in community investment and alternatives that for too long have simply not existed.”
It remains to be seen if the “tough on crime” message will resonate with the voters the GOP needs to win back legislative seats in the Chicago suburbs.
But it is noteworthy that all factions of the party and donors like Griffin seem to have the same message on public safety. Whether Griffin opens his checkbook to get that message out might be the next thing to look out for.
Poll shows Bailey with early lead
State Sen. Darren Bailey, R-Xenia, holds the early lead in the GOP primary race for governor, according to a poll conducted last weekend.
The poll, from Chicago-based Ogden & Fry and first reported by Politico, shows Bailey with 33% support among prospective GOP primary voters. Far behind are venture capitalist Jesse Sullivan at 6%, businessman Gary Rabine at 5% and former state Sen. Paul Schmipf, R-Waterloo, at 3%.
It’s a positive start for Bailey, who became a folk hero of sorts to conservative voters for challenging Pritzker’s COVID-related emergency orders and mask mandates.
But, it’s still early. And 49% of poll respondents indicated they are still undecided. Plenty of time for opinions to change between now and the June 28 primary.
Sullivan entered the race in August as an unknown, but has nearly $11 million in the bank. This will allow him to introduce himself to voters. Bailey and Rabine have stepped up their fundraising this quarter, but come nowhere close to Sullivan.
And, of course, the field may not even be set yet. Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Taylorville, is considering a run. State Sen. Jason Barickman, R-Bloomington, and former state Sen. Kirk Dillard also haven’t ruled out running.
Photos: Republican Day at the Illinois State Fair
Stay up-to-date on the latest in local and national government and political topics with our newsletter.