General Assembly departures make way for competitive primaries in Chicago, the suburbs

Lawmakers vote in the Illinois House in 2019.

Lawmakers vote in the Illinois House in 2019. (Zbigniew Bzdak / Chicago Tribune)

Senate President John Cullerton’s surprise announcement last fall that he would retire in January set off a chain reaction in Illinois politics, prompting a fierce behind-the-scenes battle over who would lead the General Assembly’s upper chamber, and indirectly setting up a five-way Democratic primary race for a House seat on Chicago’s North Side.

Cullerton’s Senate seat went to longtime state Rep. Sara Feigenholtz. Her departure from the House, in turn, created a crowded primary field in her lakefront district.

The Democratic race in the 12th House District is one of several competitive contests in the March 17 primaries created by the midterm departures of more than a dozen legislators since January 2019.

Some, like Cullerton, have retired; some have moved on to other public offices or taken jobs in Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s administration; and some have resigned after being caught up in an ongoing federal corruption probe.

There are contested primaries for 29 of the 118 seats in the House; and in eight of the 21 state Senate districts up for election this year.

Here’s a closer look at some of the high-profile races in Chicago and the suburbs.

The race to replace Feigenholtz in the House is shaping up as a test of the political strength of Pritzker versus Mayor Lori Lightfoot.

Margaret Croke

Margaret Croke (Dean La Prairie/Croke campaign)

Jonathan "Yoni" Pizer

Jonathan "Yoni" Pizer (Campaign photo)

Lightfoot has endorsed political fundraiser and business owner Jonathan “Yoni” Pizer, a former liaison to the LGBT community for U.S. Rep. Mike Quigley. The mayor’s Light PAC has contributed $5,000 to his campaign. Pizer also has Feigenholtz’s backing and received $25,000 from her campaign fund.

In February, local Democratic Party leaders appointed Pizer, 55, to the seat Feigenholtz held for 25 years.

While the governor generally has been careful about publicly wading into primary contests, he has gone all in for Pizer’s opponent, Margaret Croke, 28, who worked on Pritzker’s campaign and is currently on maternity leave from her $90,000-per-year job as deputy chief of staff at the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity.

Pritzker’s campaign fund on Feb. 21 contributed $57,800 to Croke — the maximum allowed for transfers from one candidate fund to another ahead of the primary. The billionaire governor and his wife, M.K. Pritzker, who live in the 12th District, also maxed out individual contributions to Croke, each giving $5,800.

In all, Croke had raised nearly $256,000 as of Friday, and reported having nearly $110,000 on hand at the end of last year. Pizer had reported raising nearly $250,000, ending 2019 with more than $56,000 in the bank. The totals don’t include contributions received since Dec. 31 that are under $1,000, which only have to be reported quarterly.

Pizer said he’s been emphasizing reforms to the state’s government ethics laws on the campaign trail, including strengthened restrictions on lawmakers leaving the General Assembly and becoming lobbyists. Croke’s focus has been on reining in rising property taxes and the state’s soaring pension debt, she said.

Croke said she, like most voters in the district, supports Pritzker’s agenda but wouldn’t be afraid to disagree with him. “My first priority will always be the residents of the 12th District,” Croke said.

For his part, Pizer said he looks forward “to extending my hand in friendship and cooperation” to Pritzker after the primary.

The other candidates are Marty Malone, who like Croke is a former aide to Cook County Commissioner Bridget Gainer; and attorneys Ryan Podges and Jimmy Garfield. No Republican is seeking the seat.

One of the more complicated primary contests was triggered by the resignation of veteran Northwest Side state Rep. Luis Arroyo in November after he was charged with bribery in federal court.

Nidia Carranza

Nidia Carranza (Campaign photo)

Rep. Eva-Dina Delgado

Rep. Eva-Dina Delgado (Gregory Phelps/Delgado campaign photo)

Democratic Party leaders in the district appointed former Peoples Gas chief of staff Eva-Dina Delgado to the seat, but House Speaker Michael Madigan has convened a special committee to investigate the legitimacy of her appointment. Arroyo, who has pleaded not guilty, remains the Democratic committeeman for the 36th Ward.

While Arroyo didn’t participate in selecting Delgado, his share of the weighted vote was used to make the appointment.

Delgado, 42, has said she isn’t Arroyo’s chosen candidate, noting that he was circulating nominating petitions for someone else. She resigned from her job at Peoples Gas and her position on the Chicago Police Board to focus on her state legislative seat.

Lightfoot has endorsed Delgado, who sat on the Police Board while the mayor was its president, and her political action committee contributed $1,500 to Delgado’s campaign. Delgado, an attorney who’s held posts with the city and the CTA, also has received $20,000 from the 36th Ward PAC, a committee headed by Berwyn Township Assessor David Avila, and has put $45,000 into her own campaign. In all, she’d raised nearly $114,000 as of Friday, not counting small contributions since Dec. 31.

Challenging Delgado is progressive Nidia Carranza, a teacher who has the backing of the Chicago Teachers Union, one of Lightfoot’s chief political foes. CTU’s political committee has given $35,000 to Carranza’s campaign. She’d raised nearly $168,000 as of Friday.

The special House committee considering the challenges to Delgado’s appointment met for the first time last month, but a decision on her appointment won’t be decided until after the primary, and likely until after the General Assembly’s two-week break in April. There is no Republican candidate on the primary ballot, so the winner on the Democratic side likely will be unopposed in November, meaning Delgado could return to the seat even if removed by the full House.

Delgado said voters she talks with in the district are more concerned about issues like rising property taxes, funding for schools and public safety than how she was appointed.

“In my conversations with people, they’re much more focused on their day-to-day issues,” she said.

Carranza, 30, a bilingual preschool teacher at Marvin Camras Children’s Engineering School in the Belmont Cragin community, said her focus is on providing a voice for the community after what she characterized as more than a decade of neglect by Arroyo, who took office in 2006.

Democratic Rep. Yehiel “Mark” Kalish of Chicago is running for the seat that he was appointed to in early 2019 following the abrupt retirement of longtime Rep. Lou Lang, who became a lobbyist.

Rep. Yehiel “Mark” Kalish

Rep. Yehiel “Mark” Kalish (John Berry/Illinois House of Representatives)

Kevin Olickal

Kevin Olickal (Campaign photo)

Denyse Wang Stoneback

Denyse Wang Stoneback (Robert Kusel/Stoneback campaign)

Kalish, 44, an ordained rabbi and former business owner, set off a barrage of criticism last spring when he voted “present” on the Reproductive Health Act, a major piece of abortion rights legislation that had the backing of many Illinois Democrats. The bill’s sponsor, Democratic Rep. Kelly Cassidy of Chicago, said Kalish pulled his support for the measure at the last minute.

As a result, Kalish lost the support of Lang and other local Democratic leaders in the Far Northwest Side and northwest suburban district.

Two challengers are seeking to unseat Kalish in the primary: gun-safety activist Denyse Wang Stoneback, 50, and political operative Kevin Olickal, 27, both of Skokie.

All three candidates support abortion rights. Both Stoneback and Olickal support Illinois’ Reproductive Health Act, but Stoneback has the backing of some big-name abortion rights groups, including the influential political action committee Personal PAC. In addition to endorsing Stoneback, Personal PAC has contributed more than $39,000 to her campaign.

Kalish said that while he supports the underlying intent of the Reproductive Health Act — which among other provisions would keep abortion legal in Illinois if the U.S. Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade — he couldn’t support language in that law that says “a fertilized egg, embryo, or fetus does not have independent rights.”

“I don’t believe that’s the definition of being pro-choice,” he said.

Despite the focus on the issue, both he and Stoneback said they’ve been hearing greater concern about gun violence from voters in the district.

Kalish serves on a House firearm task force, while Stoneback emphasizes her advocacy for a bill that would require fingerprinting for gun license applicants. The measure passed the House last year but stalled in the Senate.

Olickal said his emphasis has been on running a grassroots campaign without ties to powerful interests. “This district deserves a representative who is not going to be beholden to any institution,” he said.

Kalish has by far the largest campaign fund, having raised more than $556,000 as of Friday. Stoneback had raised nearly $236,000, while Olickal raised more than $131,000.

There are no candidates running on the GOP side.

After 10 years representing a district that stretches from North Lawndale to the Near North Side, Rep. Art Turner isn’t seeking reelection to the seat previously held for three decades by his father, Arthur Turner.

Lakesia Collins

Lakesia Collins (Campaign photo)

Aaron Turner

Aaron Turner (Campaign photo)

The younger Turner’s retirement from the legislature has sparked a seven-way race. Among the candidates is Turner’s younger brother, Aaron, 36, director of legislative affairs for the Illinois Housing Development Authority.

While Turner’s name likely is most familiar to voters in the district, Lakesia Collins, a nursing home organizer for Service Employees International Union Healthcare Illinois, has the backing of her union and several other politically powerful labor organizations, including SEIU Local 73, the Chicago Teachers Union and the Illinois Federation of Teachers, and the progressive political action committee United Working Families.

Collins, 34, who also has the backing of two aldermen, Jeanette Taylor and Byron Sigcho-Lopez, and Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson, had raised more than $306,000 as of Friday — nearly four times as much as Turner and their five other opponents combined. The other candidates are Sandra Schneller, Nicole “Nikki” Harvey, Maurice Edwards, Tyjuan “Ty” Cratic and Trina Mangrum.

“Running against a family name, it takes money,” Collins said. “You really have to be out there on the ground.”

Talking to voters across the district, she said she repeatedly hears concerns about public safety, affordable housing and education funding, which she said will be her priorities if elected.

The bulk of Turner’s campaign funding — $31,000 out of nearly $44,000 as of Friday — has come from Rep. Art Turner and his campaign fund.

Turner said he is campaigning for the seat on his own merits. “It’s not like it’s being handed down to me,” he said.

Democratic Rep. Lindsey LaPointe of Chicago has been representing the far Northwest Side district since July, when she was appointed to the seat after Sen. Robert Martwick moved from the House to the upper chamber, and she’s drawn considerable support from fellow Democrats.

Joe Duplechin

Joe Duplechin (Campaign photo)

Rep. Lindsey LaPointe

Rep. Lindsey LaPointe (Campaign photo)

Patti Vasquez

Patti Vasquez (Christopher Cote/Vasquez campaign)

Chicago Democrats Joe Duplechin, a Chicago police officer, and Patti Vasquez, a popular former WGN Radio host and comedian, are also vying for the seat. Vasquez will appear on ballots as Patricia D. Bonnin “Patti Vasquez.”

After ending 2019 with nearly $81,000 in her campaign fund, LaPointe, as of Friday, had raised nearly $130,000 this year, including $2,500 from Pritzker’s gubernatorial campaign fund and $35,000 from House Democratic Leader Greg Harris. LaPointe has received a slew of endorsements, from Lightfoot, U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin and the Illinois Federation of Teachers.

Vasquez ended 2019 with more than $36,000 in the bank and has since raised nearly $19,000, while Duplechin ended last year with more than $25,000 in his campaign fund and had raised nearly $78,000 this year.

LaPointe said she’s not an “insider,” but she considers herself “far and away” the most experienced candidate in the race, drawing on her work with governmental entities in different social services roles.

“If you don’t know how to engage with government, you’re very limited in what you can do,” Lapointe said. “… There’s a huge gap between being in something for the right reasons and being effective.”

Vasquez has a history of advocating for people with disabilities in Springfield, and said that issue and equitable health care access would be among her top priorities if elected.

Vasquez contends that people are “tired of the insiders, the establishment” telling them who should be representing them in Springfield.

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“I’m not a politician. I’m invested in this for my community and I really want to make life better for everyone, whether it’s property taxes, health care or pensions,” she said.

Duplechin, a law enforcement officer and an Army veteran, said public safety and health care access, including mental health, are among his top priorities. This marks Duplechin’s second run for office — last year, he made an unsuccessful run for alderman. He’s heard concern from constituents about public corruption and a lack of faith in government, and said as a new state representative, he’d lead by example.

“I feel I’m a reflection of this community. Public service is just a part of me and I’d like to be that servant to everybody here,” he said. “Sometimes I don’t think people in office are reflective of that, they get in through backdoor channels.”

Chicago police Detective Jeff Muehlfelder of Chicago is running unopposed in the GOP primary.

Dan Petrella

A Lombard native, Dan Petrella has written for newspapers from Chicago to Carbondale. Before joining the Tribune in 2017, he was Springfield bureau chief for Lee Enterprises newspapers. He’s also been an editor and reporter at The State Journal-Register in Springfield. He is a graduate of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Jamie Munks covers Illinois government from Springfield. She’s worked at papers in Illinois, Upstate New York, Las Vegas and Memphis. She grew up in Chicago’s northwest suburbs and New England, and has dual bachelor’s degrees in journalism and political science from Syracuse University. In her spare time, she hikes, travels and roots for the Cubs.

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March 9, 2020 at 06:42AM

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