At the end of the “Re-open Illinois” protest outside the Illinois Capitol this month, Republican state Rep. Darren Bailey led a prayer that doubled as a political speech against Democratic Gov. JB Pritzker’s stay-at-home orders.
“Forgive us, father God, for being quiet too long,” Bailey said in his strong country drawl, standing in front of a statue of Abraham Lincoln. “Restore us. Rescue us. Heal us. Bring justice to this property right here, father God. In Jesus’ name I pray, amen.”
“AMEN!” the crowd of protesters answered Bailey.
Bailey — a downstate farmer and first-term lawmaker — has brought religious zeal to his fight against Pritzker’s efforts to stem the spread of the coronavirus in the state.
Polls have shown broad support for the governor’s orders, which have backing from even the leaders of Bailey’s own party in Springfield.
But Bailey has galvanized rural Illinoisans who have been hurt economically by the shutdown that’s lasted nearly two months and who fear Pritzker is impinging on their liberties.
Bailey gained national attention last month when he won a ruling in a lawsuit against Pritzker in a state courtroom in Clay County, 240 miles south of Chicago.
“Illinois state Rep. Darren Bailey got a judge to strike down Democratic Gov. JB Pritzker’s draconian stay-at-home order,” conservative host Laura Ingraham said in introducing Bailey as a guest on her program on the Fox News Channel.
That was not exactly true. The ruling applied to Bailey only, and he later asked the court to vacate the temporary restraining order exempting him from the governor’s order, though he promises to keep fighting the legal battle.
Bailey’s actions drew the righteous fury of the governor, who’s from Chicago and said the case set a dangerous precedent that could threaten the health of people across the state.
“This was a cheap political stunt,” Pritzker said.
Bailey, 54, replied that his motives were pure.
“Darren Bailey is a Christian, a husband, a father, a grandfather and a farmer and a state representative,” he told WBEZ. “I feel like I’m just your typical, concerned American patriot.”
Bailey said he was baffled why there were not more patriots like him in the Chicago area.
“I am terribly alarmed that society will allow — against everything we’ve ever been taught in our history classes — a person to stand up and say and do and get by with what I’ve called out as unconstitutional and even illegal activity,” Bailey said of the governor’s orders.
He also decried the lack of resistance to similar actions by Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who has closed the city’s lakefront to the public and threatened to break up parties held in violation of the state’s orders.
Bailey said he thought people in the Chicago area may not be dissenting more strongly because they’re used to being bossed around by powerful Democratic machine politicians and labor-union leaders.
The urban-rural divide over the stay-at-home orders is far from the only issue where Bailey’s views appear to diverge dramatically from many people in and near the state’s biggest city.
In Springfield, Bailey has sponsored legislation that would force Chicago to split from the rest of the state. He said that effort has little chance of success, but he compared it to a disgruntled spouse trying to voice his or her complaints about the relationship.
Bailey also has been a strong opponent of gay marriage, citing his Christian faith.
And he said he is a big proponent of free-market economics, which seeks to protect businesses from government regulation.
Yet, Bailey, his wife and the family farm have received more than $2.3 million in federal agricultural subsidies, according to data compiled by the Environmental Working Group.
Bailey said the farm in Xenia, Ill., covers 12,000 acres — an area bigger than Schaumburg. Thirteen families, including his three sons, work there.
He also owns two other companies, state records show, and he and his wife run a Christian school in Louisville, Ill.
Back in 2018, the couple had budgeted $75,000 to add to their home, he said, but they decided to put that money into his campaign for the General Assembly instead.
He won his seat in the House but is running this year to replace Dale Righter, who’s retiring from the state Senate. Righter did not return calls seeking comment about Bailey.
In March, Bailey easily won the GOP primary to succeed Righter and, because no Democrat filed in the race, he is set to join the Senate in January.
State campaign-finance records show Bailey also has received contributions from the right-wing Liberty Principles PAC. And Bailey’s political committee with other conservative downstate politicians has gotten campaign cash from Dick Uihlein, one of the biggest donors in national Republican politics.
Illinois House Minority Leader Jim Durkin, R-Western Springs, said he visited Bailey at his home.
“I have great respect for Darren,” Durkin said. “I have been to his farm. I have been to his region. He represents his constituents well.”
But Durkin said Bailey’s lawsuit represents a regional split in the GOP. Because there have been a higher number of COVID-19 cases in his west-suburban district than there are downstate, Durkin said he supports the governor’s orders and social-distancing guidelines that Bailey sees as an affront to constitutionally protected rights.
At the protest in Springfield, there was talk of Bailey running for governor himself. He said he has no such ambitions.
The rally at the state Capitol and another protest in downtown Chicago on the same day also drew people holding up signs featuring the swastika or other Nazi symbols. They drew global condemnation.
Bailey said he did not see the sign with a swastika — and did not think it represented the views of any protesters.
“That was absolutely not prevalent at all,” he said. “I would go so far as to say that very well could have been planted for the photograph.”
Asked how he would describe the protesters, Bailey replied, “Americans. Americans.”
Dan Mihalopoulos is a reporter on WBEZ’s Government & Politics Team.