Five Democratic candidates for governor gathered in a small conference room in downtown Chicago on Thursday to explain their strategy and seek a key endorsement.
But recent Democratic losses in five special elections around the country have party committeemen wondering how best to take on Republican incumbent Gov. Bruce Rauner.
An endorsement from the Cook County Democratic Party would mean support of some of the most powerful elected officials in the area — and with that, resources, staff and volunteers.
Here’s a breakdown of what the candidates said to party leaders.
Daniel Biss: Taxes and wages are top issues
State Sen. Daniel Biss, D-Evanston, focused on taxes, wages and the state’s criminal justice system. He said the Democratic nominee will be the candidate who can best address those issues.
“We have to be clear in naming that, in explaining that, and explaining the policies that we’re gonna enact to lift all people up all across the state of Illinois,” Biss said.
Bob Daiber: Now seeking endorsement
When Bob Daiber, a schools superintendent in downstate Madison County, addressed the Cook County Democratic Party in March he acknowledged that he would be a longshot because he didn’t know many people in the room.
“I don’t intend to get Cook County’s endorsement,” he said at the time. “I don’t even know how you could endorse me.”
But Daiber drastically changed his tune on Thursday.
“I want to begin this morning with a point of clarification,” Daiber said. “I realize the significance of this endorsement, and I realize what it would bring to my candidacy if you’d consider endorsing me.”
Chris Kennedy: No endorsement needed
Chris Kennedy, the former president of the Merchandise Mart in Chicago, proposed that the Cook County Democratic Party not make an endorsement in the primary.
“We need to reaffirm with the electorate that we work for them, that we are servant leaders and not leaders of servants,” Kennedy said.
Kennedy is a member of the famed political family that has been synonymous with Democratic Party politics for decades. But his campaign for governor has focused on criticizing “political insiders” and on Thursday, he said residents won’t agree to pay more in taxes if they don’t believe their government is “squeaky clean.”
Kennedy has criticized Cook County’s property tax system and assessor Joe Berrios, though without mentioning him by name. Berrios is the chairman of the Cook County Democratic Party, which led to one committeeman to ask Kennedy why he’s even there to ask for their endorsement.
“I’m here because I love the Democratic Party,” Kennedy said. “I love Illinois and I think for Illinois to be saved, the Democratic Party has to save it.”
During a break, Berrios responded to Kennedy’s comments about the party endorsement.
“We have 80 committeeman. Each committeeman has a vote,” Berrios said. “If the candidates want to look for an open primary, as Kennedy may want - he hasn’t said what he wants to do. He showed up today to seek our endorsement, but the thing is, he should get on the phone and start talking to committeemen and asking them for an open primary or for their support.”
Ameya Pawar: Party outsider needed
Chicago Ald. Ameya Pawar furthered the argument that the Democratic Party needs to make some big internal changes if it wants to beat Rauner. He said nominating a candidate with the most fame or money didn’t work out for Democrats in the presidential race.
“As we’ve learned with Hillary Clinton and most recently with the special elections, is that strategy fails time and time again,” Pawar said.
Pawar said the 2018 election is going to be about issues of race and class, and when the focus of the party is on which candidate receives an endorsement — he said the public tunes out.
J.B. Pritzker: Has the resources
Billionaire J.B. Pritzker is considered the Democratic frontrunner after he received endorsements from labor unions and some elected officials.
Pritzker said he has the money, television ads and endorsements. He noted that he’s focused his attacks on Rauner — not on other Democratic candidates.
Despite the state’s reputation for electing Democrats statewide, Pritzker said the Illinois Republican Party is still a threat and is flush with millions of dollars from Rauner.
“Our infrastructure as a party, knocking on doors getting people out to vote, has diminished. Theirs has improved,” Pritzker said. “Our communications endeavor across the state has diminished. Theirs has improved. We’ve gotta rebuild.”
He also emphasized that Democrats can win with a message focused on shifting the state to a graduated income tax instead of the current flat tax — something Rauner has opposed. Other Democratic candidates for governor have also supported this same policy.
Three other Democrats said they’re running, though they didn’t address the party: State Rep. Scott Drury, D-Highwood, Tio Hardiman and Alex Paterakis.
There was no endorsement Thursday, and it’s still not clear whether the party will make an endorsement at all.
Editor’s note: Chicago Public Media receives philanthropic support from The Pritzker Foundation. J.B. Pritzker, who is campaigning for governor in the Democratic Primary, is not involved with the foundation and does not contribute to it.
Tony Arnold is a state politics reporter for WBEZ. You can follow him on Twitter at @tonyjarnold.