Disrupter for governor
Sam McCann’s third-party long shot
Talk about being unfriended.
If State Senator Sam McCann from the Macoupin County community of Plainview was unpopular with the powers that be in Springfield before, he became a virtual pariah following his April 19 announcement that he would form the Conservative Party and become the third candidate for Illinois governor. The reaction from those in his current Republican Party was immediate and vicious.
Added to that seething GOP response is the daunting task that lies before McCann and running mate Aaron Merreighn, a state requirement that they must gather a minimum of 25,000 petition signatures to be on the ballot in November. That is five times the required number of signatures that any statewide Democratic or Republican candidate needs, and it’s certain that any signatures they obtain will be challenged.
Why would anyone voluntarily subject himself to that kind of political vitriol and seemingly insurmountable odds to enter a race that few think he has a prayer of winning?
“I was a Republican because of the platform and I think that platform is a beautiful thing,” said the 48-year-old McCann. “Unfortunately in Illinois, the people who purport to be the Republican leadership either don’t know what the platform says or certainly don’t care if they do.”
Republican leaders are upset with McCann’s candidacy, which immediately followed the March 20 GOP primary where conservative Jeanne Ives nearly upset incumbent Gov. Bruce Rauner. Party leaders also remember when McCann joined Democrats in 2015 to vote in favor of a state labor relations bill over the objections of Rauner and the Republican Caucus. Statements and tweets issued in the hours following McCann’s announcement that he is running for governor included:
“The Illinois Republican Party didn’t leave Sam McCann. He left the Republican Party with his lockstep votes to support Mike Madigan’s agenda of unbalanced budgets and putting the interests of public sector unions ahead of Illinois taxpayers.” – Senate Minority Leader Bill Brady.
“It is no surprise that Sen. McCann sells out the Republican Party for his own self-interest.” – House Minority Leader Jim Durkin.
“Sam McCann’s entry into (the) governor’s race is his latest example of self-dealing and using politics for profit.” – Illinois GOP.
“This is not McCann running because he wants to be the conservative mouthpiece. This is labor trying to screw with Rauner.” – former Illinois GOP Chairman Pat Brady.
Is McCann’s candidacy a proverbial middle finger directed at Rauner, who heavily funded a candidate to challenge him in the 2016 primary as payback for McCann’s labor relations vote? Rauner’s challenger lost, and McCann then ran unopposed in the November 2016 general election.
“To all of those folks who say that, they don’t know me, I’m not out for vengeance,” McCann said. “Rauner essentially bought the Republican Party of Illinois at a fire-sale price and once he did that he realized that individuals like myself and Jeanne Ives would stand up to him.”
Regardless of motive, if McCann is successful in getting on the November ballot he could indeed play the role of spoiler in the election.
“McCann isn’t going to win, so any vote that he gets, most of those are coming out of the Rauner cause,” said Kent Redfield, political science professor emeritus at University of Illinois Springfield. “McCann is a serious problem that Rauner doesn’t need at this point.”
“McCann has presented himself as a conservative, particularly on the issues of abortion and things like that,” Redfield said. “If I’m a Republican and I voted for Jeanne Ives, and I’m not enthusiastic about supporting Rauner, if McCann is on the ballot I have somebody else I can vote for.”
Democratic political organizations certainly see it that way and have used McCann’s candidacy to bash the incumbent Illinois governor.
“Sam McCann, Jeanne Ives and Illinoisans of all political stripes know Bruce Rauner is a failed governor who hurt working families across Illinois,” said Pritzker campaign spokesman Jason Rubin.
McCann has received no endorsements to date. Ives has indicated she will support Rauner, and the state’s largest employee union, which praised McCann’s labor relations vote, is supporting someone else.
“The AFSCME PEOPLE committee, our political program, has unanimously endorsed JB Pritzker and Juliana Stratton,” said Anders Lindall, AFSCME Council 31 spokesman. “Sam McCann did not seek our endorsement and we don’t believe he has a realistic or viable plan to win.”
McCann will need 25,000 signatures of registered voters by the end of June to get on the November ballot as a new party candidate, according to Matt Dietrich, public information officer for the Illinois State Board of Elections. The filing period for independent and new party candidates is June 18-25.
“The signature threshold is the biggest hurdle, as it’s five times what is needed by major party candidates to get on the ballot,” Dietrich said. “Those petitions are subject to the same objection process as happens with major party candidates after their filing period in the fall.”
Because of that objection process, McCann should try to get at least 50,000 nominating signatures, according to Ron Michaelson, who was the executive director of the State Board of Elections for 29 years.
“You don’t want to file 25,100 because you’d be pretty much signing your death warrant,” Michaelson said. “It’s pretty easy to find 100 invalid signatures.”
“But we are not talking about someone who has established political party resources,” Michaelson said. “How is he going to find 40,000 or 50,000 signatures that are impervious to challenge? Where does he get the manpower and resources to do that?”
Former UIS professor Redfield agreed. “It’s a real uphill, David-and-Goliath effort that he’s taking on. There’s a huge advantage if you’ve got an organization that can help with those hurdles,” Redfield said.
McCann is aware of the challenges and is already hard at work collecting signatures.
“We’ll get there by working our tails off,” said McCann recently at his Jacksonville campaign office during a signature collection drive. “I’ve always been this underdog who nobody seemed to believe could win.”
The forces allied against McCann’s candidacy want to remind voters of the allegations that dogged him during his 2016 primary race against Rauner-funded challenger Bryce Benton. The allegations include campaign finance malfeasance, mileage reimbursement fraud, IRS tax liens on McCann properties, lawsuits for unpaid credit card debt, and military service fabrications.
The State Board of Elections received a 2016 complaint filed by Kirk Million of Jacksonville that alleged the McCann for Senate Campaign improperly grouped $46,000 in expenditures and made excessive claims for mileage reimbursement totaling $36,000.
Dietrich of the State Board of Elections said a hearing was held and the campaign committee was ordered on March 4 to file amended reports regarding the improper grouping of expenditures, an order with which the committee complied. In addition, Dietrich said the McCann for Senate committee was fined three times for earlier violations, all related to the late filing of required campaign contribution reports.
“I’m the first to admit that I’m not an accountant, and since then we have conformed to every jot and tittle that they have asked us to do,” McCann said.
Former Board of Elections head Michaelson said the charges are nothing to sneeze at.
“To have three filed against an incumbent officeholder like that is not usual,” Michaelson said. “Usually those who are in office pretty much know how to play the game and they don’t get tripped up like that.”
Former UIS professor Redfield agreed, but doubted it will have much impact if McCann gets on the ballot.
“For people who are looking at his candidacy as a way to stick it to the governor, that baggage really is not significant,” Redfield said. “It’s the same way that President Trump’s baggage wasn’t disqualifying for some people because they wanted to vote against the establishment.”
The 2016 complaint also alleged that McCann for Senate did not accurately report expenditures for mileage during 2015. A public hearing into the excessive mileage reimbursement claim was ordered, but the matter was dropped when the complaint was withdrawn.
“You can look at my odometers and see that the miles are real,” McCann said. “I’m sure that Bruce Rauner would like the miles not to be real.”
Regarding the IRS tax liens and credit card debt, McCann said those are real – but unjustified.
“They kept putting liens on my property for money that we don’t owe,” McCann said. “We have fought it and won on several occasions, and we will continue to fight it, and I believe we will win.”
The unpaid credit card debt relates to a combination of credit card misuse by former employees of McCann’s construction company and identify theft, McCann said.
“I’ve had some struggles, but I’ve never declared bankruptcy,” McCann said. “My definition of a conservative is someone who does his best to honor his obligations, not run from them.”
The issue that continues to have traction, however, stems from a 2010 comment McCann allegedly made to the Greene Prairie Press, which quoted him talking about “the courage I learned in the Marine Corps.”
“I never said I was a Marine, I said I joined the Marine Corps. I also never said I regretted saying that because what I said was the truth,” McCann said. “It’s kind of like the telephone game and people keep repeating and repeating it.”
McCann said he joined the Marine Corps in late 1989 and passed his physical, signed the contract and took the oath of service at the St. Louis military processing center. Personnel at the center put him on the delayed entry program and ordered McCann to report to boot camp in April 1990. But a serious construction accident in February 1990 changed those plans.
“I was not ready to go in April because of that accident,” McCann said. “So the Marine Corps tore up my contract.”
The courage part of the alleged misquote, McCann said, stems from his reference to a pamphlet he read while waiting in St. Louis to sign his U.S. Marines contract.
“It said that courage is the ability to be afraid but do your duty anyway,” McCann said.
To this day, even many veterans who support McCann believe he probably misspoke during that 2010 interview. Jim Duncan of Jacksonville is a Vietnam veteran and has held leadership roles with local and district veterans organizations. He is cofounder of a nationwide veteran peer support group.
“It does upset some area veterans, but not everybody. He invited veterans to come and talk to him in Jacksonville to hear his side of the story,” Duncan said. “I wish he hadn’t said it to begin with, but I think we all get carried away with talking sometimes.”
“I joined the Army through the delayed entry program, and if I had severely injured myself they wouldn’t have taken me either,” Duncan said. “At least he tried to serve.”
One who did serve is McCann’s running mate, 35-year-old Aaron Merreighn, a native of Lincoln and a current Rochester resident who spent eight years in the U.S. Marine Corps and served five tours of duty, including three in Iraq.
“I am completely against people pretending to be veterans and if Sam was ever pretending to be a veteran he wouldn’t be a friend of mine,” Merreighn said.
Merreighn and McCann have worked together for several years on veterans’ issues, particularly the Quincy Veterans Home. Merreighn’s only political experience is as a Republican precinct committeeman and an unsuccessful bid for Riverton village trustee as a Libertarian candidate in 2005.
“The state Republican party to me is unrecognizable. It’s the party of Rauner and not the party of Lincoln and Reagan anymore,” Merreighn said.
Merreighn is an integral part of the statewide petition effort to get himself and fellow Conservative Party candidate McCann on the ballot. He’s passed petitions in Springfield, Lincoln, Moline, Tuscola, Mt. Vernon and other locations and said the reception from voters has been positive.
“In a two-way race our chances probably wouldn’t be too good going against a billionaire,” Merreighn said. “But since there is a three-way race we don’t need 50 percent, we only need a third plus one.”
Merreighn works at the Illinois Department of Revenue and so far his candidacy hasn’t affected his job. He is also an American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) member.
“I would have at least liked to have seen AFSCME give Sam a call or give us a chance to get on the ballot before they made their decision” about endorsing Pritzker for governor, Merreighn said. “I know a lot of my friends who are members of AFSCME that don’t agree with that decision.”
Merreighn didn’t hesitate when asked what his first priority would be as lieutenant governor: Veterans.
“It’s sad, it’s heartbreaking, it’s infuriating, to see the men and women who at one point in their lives wrote a blank check for this country, up to and including their lives, and to come home and they are just forgotten about,” Merreighn said. “There needs to be more advertisement and awareness of the veterans’ programs that are out there.”
When McCann announced that he was leaving the Republican Party and stepping out on his own, the state funds that are generally available to all senators in the Republican caucus were cut off. That prompted McCann to file a lawsuit against the Illinois Senate Republican Caucus and the Illinois Republican Party. The lawsuit only presents McCann’s side of the story, but the defendants aren’t talking.
“Now that Conservative Party Candidate McCann has sued the Senate Republican caucus, we are unable to comment,” said Senate Republican Leader spokesman Jason Gerwig.
Attorneys for Minority Leader Brady on May 9 asked a federal judge to dismiss the lawsuit, claiming that Brady has “legislative immunity” to decide how caucus resources are distributed.
McCann said that although he’s announced his candidacy for governor on the Conservative Party ticket, he’s still a Republican until he files the nomination petitions and is therefore entitled to the funds and staff support all other GOP senators receive.
“Senator Brady’s attorney has responded that I don’t need those things to be an effective senator,” McCann said. “So if that’s their argument, then why are the taxpayers paying for those services for all of the other senators?”
McCann’s lawsuit was filed by an attorney paid for by the International Operating Engineers Local 150, an organization that recently contributed $50,000 to McCann’s campaign..
“To my knowledge they are the only organized labor group helping us,” McCann said.
McCann was first elected to the state Senate in 2010 and reelected in 2016. He represents the 50th District, which encompasses the entirety of Calhoun, Greene, Morgan, Pike and Scott counties, and is partially within Jersey, Macoupin, Madison and Sangamon counties.
The House of Representative members who share McCann’s district, Reps. C.D. Davidsmeyer of Jacksonville and Sara Wojcicki Jimenez of Springfield, both Republicans, declined to comment for this story, as did numerous legislators from both parties who were approached for their thoughts.
Mayors and county board members from several communities in the 50th District also demurred. One exception was Sangamon County Board Administrator Brian McFadden.
“I’d say the working relationship between the Sangamon County Board and Senator McCann has pretty much been nonexistent,” McFadden said. “Early on, he would call occasionally about a bill that was moving through the system, but other than that there hasn’t been much of a relationship.”
“If there’s something we are seeking out, we will generally go to someone else to try and move that through for us,” McFadden said. “We’ll talk to Tim Butler or Sara Jimenez, or Senators Brady and Manar.”
Move away from the public sector, however, and you’ll find McCann supporters, like David Fuhler, past president and current board member of the Pike County Chamber of Commerce
“I have never had a negative experience with Sam. He has been very supportive of business in our area and has been very sensitive to things that we are dealing with,” Fuhler said. “I always felt that Sam, if he wasn’t informed on a topic, was quick trying to get the information on a particular thing.”
“I’ve never had Sam make a promise to me that he didn’t give his full effort to try to fulfill,” Fuhler said.
William Samuel McCann has lived in Macoupin County since the age of 19. He and his wife, Vicki, a nurse, have been married nearly 24 years. The McCanns have a 15-year-old son, a 10-year-old daughter, and they also consider a 21-year-old young woman from a family they have helped for years to be a non-biological daughter. McCann is the owner and president of McCann Construction in Carlinville.
“If people will open their hearts and minds to the concept of really changing the paradigm, I know we can win and I know we can be successful and turn this state around,” McCann said. “I’m going to look to people. I will win the election with votes, not with money.”
David Blanchette is a freelance writer from Jacksonville and is also the co-owner of Studio 131 Photography in Springfield.