Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner’s rejection of a spending plan gives Illinois lawmakers less than a week to find an agreement and avoid the starting point of a government shutdown. But a Thursday rally on Chicago’s West Side shed some light into just how far apart things remain between Rauner and Democratic legislators.
The rally came after several reports of increasing tensions between Republican Governor Bruce Rauner and Democrats. In that time, a lot of the voice and tone of Rauner’s opposition has come from Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan, who has a reputation for his low-key, matter-of-fact way of speaking.
For months now, Madigan has been saying he’s working with Rauner even as the two sides have been inching toward the very dramatic possibility of a government shutdown. And the tone of the Democratic opposition got a serious injection of adrenaline Thursday when a group of African-American lawmakers organized a rally on Chicago’s West Side.
Those at the rally were from community groups addressing state funding of autism programs, energy assistance for the poor, and mental health services. Some of those groups receive state money and stand to lose some of it.
Near the end of the event, Sen. Kimberly Lightford (D-Westchester), who is in Senate leadership, stepped outside to talk to reporters.
And that’s when the news broke that Rauner had vetoed almost all of the spending plan for state government for the next year. It was in this moment when the rhetoric started to match the stakes of those tensions that have been talked about so much in recent months.
“You can’t just bring your whole campaign agenda in year one and pit it against the budget and say, ‘Either you give me what I want or not.’ The campaign is over. People are hurting. It’s time to govern,” Lightford said.
Lightford says the governor hasn’t been willing to negotiate with legislators. Rauner’s administration denies that characterization of the debate, and Republicans have said it’s Democrats who aren’t willing to accept that voters elected a Republican as governor.
After she finished talking with reporters, Lightford still had something else to do: Break the news to those attending the rally in the other room.
When Lightford entered, tears streaming down her face, the crowd moved in tighter.
“Don’t confuse my tears as signs of weakness,” she said. “I’m mad as hell and I want to fight.”
That’s when Lightford got more personal in her comments, referring to Rauner’s personal wealth as the crowd looked for somewhere to direct its anger.
“I don’t give a damn how much money he has. He can sit up in his mansion and not be affected but all of us will feel the pinch. It might not be in your house but it’s gonna be in your neighbor’s house,” she told the crowd.
As those in the crowd asked her for a plan of action, Lightford said she’d have to talk to her fellow Democrats.
“We’re gonna have to march on this governor like nothing before,” she said. “And I think we need the elders in this room to show us how to do it. You did it in the ‘50s, you did it in the ‘60s, we need you to do it in 2015. We need help today.
For his part, Rauner wrote an editorial published in the Chicago Tribune Thursday, saying he vetoed the budget because the budget wasn’t balanced. He said he still wants to change workers compensation benefits and approve term limits before a spending plan is approved. In that editorial, he also addressed the underfunded pension issues facing Chicago public school teachers and Cook County workers.
The response to Rauner’s veto from Speaker Madigan did not reflect the anger felt on Chicago’s West Side. Instead, Madigan’s spokesman issued a written statement to reporters that says the wheels are in motion for hearing from government officials about how they’re preparing for a shut down.
Tony Arnold covers Illinois politics for WBEZ. Follow him @tonyjarnold.