Illinois Democrats put on happy faces yesterday, meeting in Springfield for one of the party's biggest annual gatherings. But even as they brushed off suggestions of turmoil and division within their ranks, a prominent member of the party was being sentenced to prison, another didn't show up, and there's a battle for the top of the state Democratic ticket. IPR's Amanda Vinicky reports:
A state fair is a place for tradition: carnival rides, corn dogs, barnyard animals. And politicians.
Every year, Illinois Democrats and Republicans each get a day at the fair. The agenda's always the same too: meet in the morning for a formal breakfast, then head out to the fairgrounds for a party rally.
Democrats started their day - called "Governor's Day," because they hold the office - according to that tradition. More than a thousand of them from all over the state met over coffee and eggs, and to hear from their party's leader, including Gov. Pat Quinn, who regaled them with a list of accomplishments.
"And in 10 weeks after I became Governor, working with labor and a whole bunch of people, we were able to pass the Illinois Jobs Now! plan. It's supported over 400,000 jobs," he said.
Though it was a speech similar to those he'd given before, the audience ate it up -- cheering for Quinn and giving him a standing ovation.
The claps were more subdued when former White House Chief of Staff Bill Daley took the podium. Daley's challenging Quinn for the Democratic nomination for Governor. He used his first major speech downstate, to a large group of the party's base, to both introduce himself:
"Some folks may ask, 'what can a guy named Daley, from Chicago, possibly do for Illinois?'" Daley said. "Well I believe that the people of Illinois are fair and decent people, and they want a governor who will lead."
And to knock Quinn. for what Daley says is a lack of leadership: "Here's a decent guy, and has been stated before, he is a heck of a White Sox fan. But just like the White Sox, we will not win if we do not make change."
Later, Daley said if Quinn does win the primary, he won't win another term as governor.
Head of the Democratic County Chairmens' Association Alan Pirtle, who's from the part of Illinois just outside of St. Louis, tried to minimize the perception that the primary battle means the party's divided.
"We can disagree without being overly disagreeable," Pirtle said. And first and foremost we always remember that we're Democrats. That he evening after primary election results are announced, we are on board the same train."
But the primary battle is not the only crack in Democrats' armor.
Though nobody made mention of it during hours of speeches, while the brunch was underway, former Democratic Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. was being sentencing to two-and-a-half years in prison for using his campaign fund, as the judge put it, like a "personal piggy bank." It's the latest in a string of scandals.
Then there's the fissures within the party, which are so deep, they've landed in court.
Governor Quinn's being sued by the General Assembly's Democratic leaders, Senate President John Cullerton and House Speaker Mike Madigan, for cancelling legislators' paychecks.
But the fair may be the most obvious demonstration of where the party's at. Remember how political rallies are a state fair tradition? Not this year. After union members protested him at last year's event, Governor Pat Quinn this year canceled the rally. Instead he held a sort of-picnic, that only people with a ticket could get into.
He was the only politician to take the stage -- and his remarks were brief. The rest of the afternoon, bands performed while the governor either danced or shook hands.
Unlike previous years, he was one of the few elected officials in attendance. Quinn shrugged it off, saying "I think it's all about voters, that's what I focus on mostly. I think it's all about voters. And I think our gathering today, our music whether it's country, whether it's rhythm and blues, it's all about Illinois."
Effingham County Chair Audrey Griffith didn't mind sitting down with friends at a picnic table for some Bud-Light and pulled pork after a long morning of political speeches.
"I'm liking it ... it's more of an inspiration to people. You know to be free, to enjoy themselves," she said.
But Griffith was bothered that one politician never showed up --- to either the morning meeting, or to the fair: the head of the Democratic Party of Illinois, House Speaker Michael Madigan, didn't come at all.
"Be nice if he thought enough to be with us, supporting the party and egging people on to support what they believe in. Would have been really nice," she said.
Madigan's spokesman hasn't responded to calls asking about his whereabouts.
But another Democratic County Chair, Macon County's Jim Underwood, was nonplussed by Madigan's absence, and dismissed the notion Madigan could do more to unify the party and help it succeed.
"We do so well, I mean we control the House and the Senate and the Governor's office, so I think we're doing a pretty good job," he said.
After all, this isn't the first time Illinois Democrats have feuded, and yet they're more powerful than ever. To carry on where Underwood left off: Democrats hold not just majorities, but super-majorities in both the state House and the Senate. And in addition to the Governor, the attorney general and secretary of state are both Democrats, too.
Republicans will have their day at the fair Thursday; look for plenty of chest-thumping about who's best to pry those positions out of the Democrats' hands.
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