Updated March 16, 2018
They’ve been almost impossible for Illinoisans to ignore. The ads on TV. The commercials on the radio. The videos in your Facebook feed.
On March 20, voters across the state will cast ballots in primary elections affecting everything from the governor’s mansion to every U.S. House seat to the person who mails your property tax bill. The winners will get their party’s nomination and the right to square off against the opposing party’s nominees in the Nov. 6 general election.
If you’re like us at WBEZ, you’ve been breathing, eating, and dreaming electoral politics for months. But if you’re not, this might seem like just another biennial circus featuring folks you’ve never heard of, spending sums you can’t imagine to win offices you don’t often think about.
Fret not: If you want to cast an informed vote on March 20, we’ll bring you up to speed on the races we’ve been watching and point to some places where you can learn more. Deep breath.
Illinois Governor: The big kahuna
What’s the deal? Six Democrats and two Republicans are running to win their parties’ nominations. The winners face each other in November.
Why should I care? You may not have noticed it, but Illinois is coming off of a historic political stalemate that left the state with no budget for more than two years. This impasse decimated state finances and any sense of bipartisanship in Springfield. The general election for governor in November promises to be one of the nastiest and most expensive in state history, if not in American history. Whoever snags the highest office in Illinois will set the tone for digging the state out of its morass — or wading deeper into it. Whatever happens, it’ll likely affect your wallet.
What do I need to know? The candidates in the Democratic primary mostly agree on many policies, including the need for a sliding-scale, graduated income tax and some path toward legalized recreational marijuana. The three guys leading the race (yes, they’re all men) have spent much of it fighting over which one of them is the outsider-iest outsider, independent of Illinois’ establishment politicians and their grasp: billionaire Hyatt Hotels heir J.B. Pritzker, liberal Evanston state Sen. Daniel Biss, or businessman Chris Kennedy. (Yes, one of those Kennedys.) Far behind them in one recent poll are anti-violence advocate Tio Hardiman, downstate regional schools superintendent Bob Daiber, and Dr. Robert Marshall.
On the Republican side, Gov. Bruce Rauner has been tagged as one of the most vulnerable incumbents in the country. Democrats blame him for the budget impasse, and his administration has faced questions about repeated outbreaks of Legionnaires’ disease at a state-run veterans’ home. Even some fellow Republicans are upset with his decision to allow some public money to pay for abortions and his support of an immigration measure that some conservatives argue makes Illinois a so-called “sanctuary state” for undocumented immigrants. Still, he’s far outpolling his challenger from the right, Wheaton state Rep. Jeanne Ives, who’s more outspokenly conservative than Rauner.
Illinois Attorney General: A race many politicos didn’t see coming
Why should I care? As Illinois’ chief legal officer, the next attorney general could have a big role in Chicago’s police reform efforts in the wake of the Laquan McDonald shooting. Many of the candidates have also vowed to take a harder stance against government corruption.
What do I need to know? On the Republican side, Harvard-educated Champaign attorney Erika Harold has enjoyed the backing of Rauner, though the former Miss America has recently come under fire for some comments she allegedly made about gay adoption when she was a young Miss Illinois pageant contestant. She faces attorney Gary Grasso in the primary.
As for Democrats, there are a bunch. Former Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn and Chicago state Sen. Kwame Raoul lead the pack in one recent poll. But Sharon Fairley, a political newcomer who formerly oversaw the agency tasked with investigating the most serious Chicago police misconduct allegations, has been racking up endorsements. Rounding out the crowded field: Chicago lawyer and cable TV commentator Renato Mariotti, former federal prosecutor and current Highwood state Rep. Scott Drury, Highland Park Mayor Nancy Rotering, Chicago Park District Board President Jesse Ruiz, and Aaron Goldstein, a defense attorney who represented former Gov. Rod Blagojevich.
Cook County Assessor: The pocketbook race
What’s the deal? Three Democrats are running in the March primary, which is pretty much the deciding race since no Republicans are on the ballot.
Why should I care? If you live in Cook County — as a renter or homeowner — this race is almost guaranteed to hit your bottom line. The assessor is in charge of figuring out how to divvy up the property tax burden among homeowners. If you care about your property tax bill (or how much you pay in rent), pay attention to this race.
What do I need to know? Joseph Berrios, the current assessor and chairman of the Cook County Democratic Party, has been under intense scrutiny following a Chicago Tribune/ProPublica investigation that found his assessment practices lead to wealthier property owners paying less than their fair share of property taxes, while poor and minority communities pay more. A recent independent study corroborated those findings. Former asset manager Frederick “Fritz” Kaegi has poured a lot of his own money into a race that’s come to symbolize the outsider-versus-“machine” narrative that pervades this election cycle. After an on-again, off-again fight to remain on the ballot, a third candidate, Andrea Raila, is again in the race. Raila has been in the property tax assessment industry for more than 20 years and has painted herself as a highly qualified candidate running in what she calls the “year of the woman” to become the first female Cook County Assessor.
Illinois’ 4th Congressional District: Fight for the Latino Earmuffs
What’s the deal? Just three Democrats are left standing out of what was once a crowded field vying to replace firebrand Congressman Luis Gutierrez, who made a surprise announcement in November that he wouldn’t seek re-election. The only Republican in the race is Mark Wayne Lorch, so there’s no contested GOP primary.
Why should I care? If you care about American immigration policy, this is a race to watch. During his quarter century in office, Gutierrez developed a reputation as the most outspoken advocate for immigration reform in the House. The district — dubbed the “Latino Earmuffs” for its gerrymandered shape — is the only majority-Hispanic district in the Midwest. Political observers and community activists are watching to see whether Gutierrez’ replacement picks up his immigration reform mantle.
What do I need to know? On the same day he officially announced he was leaving Congress, Gutierrez also announced he was endorsing Cook County Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia to succeed him. Garcia, who forced Mayor Rahm Emanuel into a runoff election in 2015, has been endorsed by Vermont U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders. Also running in the primary are Sol Flores, the head of a housing and social services non-profit who caught the attention of politicos with her unflinching campaign ad about how she survived childhood sexual abuse, and affordable housing advocate Richard Gonzalez.
Illinois’ 3rd Congressional District: ‘Trump Democrat’ vs. ‘Tea Party of the left’?
Why should I care? This primary has come to symbolize the battle for the future of the Democratic Party — whether it can accommodate younger voters who support more progressive policies over established Democrats who are willing to strike compromises with Republicans.
What do I need to know? The race is between conservative Democratic Rep. Dan Lipinski and more liberal Marie Newman, a political newcomer who describes herself as a “small businesswoman, entrepreneur, national nonprofit executive, author and human rights advocate.” Unlike other primaries, there are real policy differences between the two. Lipinski has opposed same-sex marriage and abortion rights; Newman fervently supports both. Lipinski has bucked his party by voting against U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi for speaker of the House; Newman has picked up Sanders’ endorsement. If Newman can topple the Lipinski legacy (his dad was a congressman, too), it’d be a huge upset.
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.
This article was updated on March 16, 2018, to show that Andrea Raila, a Democratic candidate for Cook County assessor, is back on the March 20 ballot. At the time of this article's original publication, she had been removed.
Alex Keefe is WBEZ’s Senior Editor for Government & Politics. Follow him @akeefe.