The Democratic primary race in a single Illinois state representative district has become a $2 million battleground. The few thousand voters there could swing the balance of power between Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner and the Democrats who control the legislature.
Rauner’s allies are behind incumbent Rep. Ken Dunkin, who broke with other Democrats last year. Unions are backing his opponent, Juliana Stratton.
I met up with both candidates in the district, to see them interact with voters directly.
Stratton says she has been canvassing the district— going door to door— since late last year. At first it was after work, and then after New Year’s, she went on leave from her job at the University of Illinois.
“So, from January fourth, every day, it’s like this,” she says, as she starts an afternoon of door-knocking. “Seven days a week, yeah.”
At least, that’s what she says. And she does seem very, very practiced.
For instance, at a two-flat in the 6100 block of South Vernon Avenue, she introduces herself, confirms that the woman at the door is a registered voter and gets her name:
STRATTON: Nice to meet you, Ms. Thompson. You received my information?
STRATTON: Because you looked at me like: ‘I’ve been getting a LOT of mail from you…’
THOMPSON: I got it
STRATTON: I’m running against Ken Dunkin…
Stratton gives her spiel—Dunkin missed some key votes, aligned himself with Rauner, hurt kids and seniors. It takes 30 seconds. Then Stratton asks directly for Thompson’s support.
“I was going to vote for you anyway,” Thompson says.
In the 30 seconds that follow, Stratton thanks Ms. Thompson, and makes a series of asks: Would Thompson pass word to other voters in the house? May the campaign put up a small sign in front of the house? How is Thompson herself is doing?
Stratton is leaving when Thompson’s adult daughter arrives. She’s also a registered voter, so Stratton lingers 60 more seconds.
“You’ll be hearing from me,” she says.
Having made her goodbyes at this house, Stratton moves on. Sixty seconds later, she is knocking on the next door.
While I’m with her, she hits about 35 doors, and talks with about 18 voters. All but three or four tell her “yes.” The rest are maybes.
After a couple hours I get ready to leave. Stratton smiles, gives me a 30-second farewell, and keeps moving.
A couple days later, I arrive promptly at 1 p.m. at Harris Park, at 62nd and Drexel to meet Rep. Dunkin. His campaign has told me the candidate can spare me 10 minutes.
Dunkin isn’t there when I arrive, but I’m not alone. Hundreds of senior citizens are getting checked in and shown to tables in the gym. A DJ plays 1960s-era soul over the P.A.
This is a Bingo Bash, with free transportation, a catered lunch from Chicken and Waffles, raffles, and, I’m told, $2,000 in prize money.
When Dunkin arrives, about a half-hour later, the music cuts out.
“Hey, y’all!” he says. “Beautiful people! Y’all ready to win some money today? We gotta give it away!”
While volunteers start bringing out food, the DJ brings the music back, and Dunkin hits a small dance floor to celebrate his 50th birthday. Some of the ladies join him—he’s a great dancer—and the people around him are having fun.
“Go ‘head on, State Representative!” one volunteer calls out. “Go ahead ON!”
Dunkin works the room. He stops at every table, blows rapid-fire kisses, flashes huge smiles, dances a little more, cracks jokes. A woman at one table says, “You don’t remember me, do you?”
He’s got a ready answer: “Oh, you’re my little sister.”
After he’s made his rounds, when I get him alone, I ask him about the fact that his major contributors are groups that support parts of the Republican governor’s agenda.
Dunkin says this is the kind of thing that happens all the time: a new source of money entering the state’s political system.
“Look at the people with the gay marriage,” he says. “They infused a lot of new money into the political process. Look at the people with the utility industry, when they started. Look at the medical marijuana. That’s brand-new money.”
I ask how the presence of this new money might have influenced him. If it hadn’t been there, would he still have skipped key votes, denying House Speaker Mike Madigan some big victories over Gov. Rauner?
“Would you have considered doing what you did,” I ask, “which was something that you knew—because you’ve been around—would make the Speaker mad?”
“I didn’t factor that into it,” Dunkin says.
I press him on this a few times. He says he’s just trying to be a good public servant. Things aren’t always what they seem.
He says he’s got the support of his voters. Like today’s party.
“You have over 500-plus people in that room,” he says. “You see all the L-O-V-E I get? They can spend all the money, they can say all the negative things. My constituents. Know. Me.”
He says what’s interesting is how quickly unions turned on him after he voted with them for years.
“You can’t be an independent voice?” he says. “You can’t have your own disposition on a particular issue?”
I ask if he could honestly be surprised by that.
“HA! I’m living it,” he says. “That’s why I’m target numero uno, because the Speaker does not want folk off the reservation.”
I ask again: Could he possibly be surprised?
There’s a beat.
“It is what it is,” he says. “Thanks, doc.”
Interview. Over. One of Dunkin’s people takes me by the arm and pulls me away (To be fair, I’ve taken more than the 10 minutes they promised).
Back in the gym, the raffle is about to start, and bingo cards have been passed out.
Gray, the woman who thought Dunkin didn’t recognize her, says bingo is the only reason she came out. She says she’s met Dunkin numerous times. Later I find out she’s a block club president.
“I’m a little bit unhappy,” she says. “OK? He missed some critical votes. And that’s what his job is. To vote.”
She pauses. “It’s really too bad that he did what he did,” she says. “Now, how can we trust him?”
I want to stay to hear how some other party-goers felt and see who won the raffle and bingo money, but that doesn’t work out.
As Dunkin is about to read off the first winning raffle number, he spots me and my microphone.
“OK, WBEZ. We did our interview,” Dunkin announces. “Have a good one, buddy. Everybody say goodbye to WBEZ.”
Dan Weissmann is a reporter for WBEZ. Follow him at @danweissmann.