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Thursday, Oct. 23, 2014 12:01 am

Union shells out big bucks to defeat Rauner

I wasn’t hugely surprised when Local 150 of the International Union of Operating Engineers contributed $30,000 to the Illinois Libertarian Party’s candidate for governor, Chad Grimm, earlier this month.  

After all, the union’s president, Jim Sweeney, was out in front of the push to beat Bruce Rauner during the Republican primary. After a stormy meeting with Rauner, who is running on a pledge to allow local areas to opt-in to “right to work” laws, Sweeney demanded that organized labor stop the candidate in his tracks. The law would give workers the right to not join the very unions which negotiated their pay, benefits and working conditions.

Sweeney’s union contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to state Sen. Kirk Dillard’s primary campaign and kicked in even more to the Fund for Progress and Jobs PAC, which was the vehicle some unions used to inform Republicans that Rauner was a “closet Democrat.”

Dillard just barely lost to Rauner in the primary, but Sweeney didn’t let up. When the Illinois Republican Party committed resources this summer to knocking the Libertarians off the November ballot, Sweeney bankrolled a crew that pushed back hard and kept the Libertarians in place.

But as it turns out, that $30,000 was just a down payment. A whole lot more help from the union is apparently on the way. Sweeney told me last week that his local is also planning a full direct mail and robocall program for the Libertarian Party candidate.

Asked about rumors that his union would spend between $200,000 and $250,000 to push the pro-gun, pro-life Grimm with traditional Republican voters against the much more liberal Rauner, Sweeney replied “More.” Asked if the budget was six figures or seven, Sweeney said “Six.”

The Libertarian’s Grimm is getting around 5-8 percent of the vote so far, depending on the poll. He appears to be taking away slightly more votes from Rauner than he is from Gov. Pat Quinn. The object is to push Grimm’s numbers up by informing conservative Republican voters that he’s the only pro-gun, pro-life candidate in the contest.

Sweeney explained last week that 42 percent of his members pull Republican ballots during primaries, and that many of those members are pro-gun, pro-life conservatives who want another option. But obviously, the real object here is to defeat Rauner.

Rauner says he is pro-choice and has run TV and newspaper ads in Chicago featuring women attesting to his pro-choice convictions. The National Rifle Association has refused to rate Rauner, claiming he won’t answer their questions. Rauner’s positions can’t be used by Gov. Quinn, who is solidly pro-choice and not exactly a gun lover, but Sweeney can sure use them.

According to Sweeney, his union local had a 50 percent unemployment rate during the depths of the Great Recession. Once proud, solidly middle-class union members were relying on union-sponsored food banks. Several lost their homes, their cars, their families.

The unemployment rate for Sweeney’s members is now the second lowest in the country in that sector, thanks in no small part to a big public works program pushed by Gov. Quinn. Sweeney’s local endorsed Quinn four years ago over Bill Brady because Brady, like Rauner, favored “right to work” legislation.

Sweeney said he met with Rauner twice since the primary in an attempt to find common ground, but Rauner refused both times to come off his “right to work” stance and wouldn’t commit to a funding source for a new public infrastructure program.

And Sweeney doesn’t appear to be in the mood for any further discussions, telling me that even if Rauner publicly changed his position on “right to work,” as he has with the minimum wage increase issue and taxes, the union leader wouldn’t believe him.

A huge factor in Gov. Quinn’s win four years ago was independent candidate Scott Lee Cohen’s millions of dollars worth of TV ads. He ended up splitting the anti-Quinn vote with Bill Brady. The hope here is that Grimm can manage a repeat performance.

The universe Sweeney is aiming at is probably pretty small. Partisanship is strong on both ends of the spectrum, and convincing people to “throw away” their vote on a third party candidate won’t be easy, to say the least.

But for those who sincerely believe that abortion is murder and who refuse to support any candidate who disagrees with them, it could be a powerful message. The same goes for the “true believers” who own guns.

And in a close race – and this race is close – every vote will count.

Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter and CapitolFax.com.

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