Focusing on crime and economy, GOP seeks to chip away at Democratic dominance of General Assembly

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In an election year roiled by a sputtering economy and divisive issues including abortion and crime, two decades of Democratic dominance in the Illinois General Assembly will be put to the test on Nov. 8.

In the House, there are contested races for 78 of 118 seats, and in the Senate, voters will face a choice in 25 of 59 seats. The election is the first since Democrats, who hold advantages of 73-45 in the House and 41-18 in the Senate, drew new district boundaries last year with the aim of maintaining their edge.

While Democrats are almost sure to keep a majority in both chambers, Republicans are hoping to gain a greater voice in Springfield by cutting into the Democratic supermajority, which would require net gains of three seats in the House and six in the Senate.

Second-term Senate President Don Harmon of Oak Park and rookie House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch of Hillside each backed at least one incumbent who was defeated by a challenger in the June primary, and the general election will be an early indication of whether the party can maintain its overwhelming edge without indicted former House Speaker Michael Madigan at the helm.

Illinois state Rep. Emanuel "Chris" Welch, flanked by Gov. J.B. Pritzker, left, and Senate President Don Harmon, speaks during a news conference outside his office at the Capitol building in Springfield on April 7, 2022.

Illinois state Rep. Emanuel “Chris” Welch, flanked by Gov. J.B. Pritzker, left, and Senate President Don Harmon, speaks during a news conference outside his office at the Capitol building in Springfield on April 7, 2022. (Antonio Perez / Chicago Tribune)

The new leaders have one big advantage: campaign accounts brimming with millions of dollars from billionaire Gov. J.B. Pritzker and other contributors.

Funds controlled by Welch and Harmon began October with $35.8 million on hand after spending $17.3 million in the previous three months, state campaign finance records show. That’s compared with just $2.6 million on hand for funds controlled by Senate GOP leader Dan McConchie of Hawthorn Woods and House GOP leader Jim Durkin of Western Springs. The Republicans spent nearly $5.6 million from July through September.

Once again, a handful of races — predominantly in the Chicago suburbs, where Democrats over the past decade have claimed territory in longtime GOP strongholds — will be key to determining the outcome.

Republicans, who picked up one House seat and lost a Senate seat two years ago, have been hammering the issues of corruption and crime — particularly by stoking fears over Democratic-backed state law that will eliminate cash bail on Jan. 1 — in hopes of bringing suburban moderates back to the fold and regaining ground in the collar counties.

Democrats are banking on a backlash to the U.S. Supreme Court decision overturning federal abortion protections to bring out their base and win over the key voting bloc of suburban women.

A voters guide to the midterms. ]

One of the biggest beneficiaries of the Democrats’ vast campaign resources has been two-term state Rep. Anne Stava-Murray of Naperville, who’s facing Republican Paul Leong, a Naperville City Council member, in the 81st District.

It’s a change of fortunes for Stava-Murray, who pledged not to support Madigan in 2018 and got essentially no backing from the former speaker’s political operation in her first two campaigns.

State Rep. Anne Stava-Murray speaks to constituent Kim Swanson as she campaigns for a third term on Nov. 1, 2022, in Woodridge.

State Rep. Anne Stava-Murray speaks to constituent Kim Swanson as she campaigns for a third term on Nov. 1, 2022, in Woodridge. (Erin Hooley / Chicago Tribune)

This time around, the caucus’ main political fund has poured more than $1.6 million into Stava-Murray’s campaign to hold a seat representing parts of Naperville, Downers Grove, Woodridge and Lisle. The state Democratic Party has kicked in nearly $219,000.

In all, she’s reported raising more than $2.3 million since July 1, and that money has helped pay for TV commercials that have been airing since August and for campaign staff.

Her district in the heart of once solidly Republican DuPage County is exactly the kind of place where the GOP thinks it can win back voters by pushing its tough-on-crime message.

But Stava-Murray predicted the U.S. Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade is a galvanizing issue that will bring out voters who may have skipped past elections.

“Those people are definitely voting this year because they are very committed to it,” she said.

Leong, an IT consultant whose campaign has raised about $237,000since July 1, said Democrats have deployed considerable resources to tar him with unfair accusations that include an ad claiming he’s “too cozy with the gun lobby.”

One campaign flyer paid for by the state Democratic Party included a doctored picture of Leong in bed under a sheet bearing the National Rifle Association logo.

In fact, there are no donations on record from the NRA or the Illinois State Rifle Association to Leong, who has received more than $215,000 since July 1 from the state GOP and campaign funds connected to House Republican Leader Jim Durkin.

Leong notes that he voted in favor of a local ban on the sale of assault weapons in Naperville, and as a Naperville District 203 school board member voted against a resolution that would have supported arming teachers.

Paul Leong, Republican candidate for State House District 81, talks with prospective voter Jessica Hurt, second from left, while canvassing a neighborhood with his daughter, Hannah, 15, on Nov. 2, 2022, in Downers Grove.

Paul Leong, Republican candidate for State House District 81, talks with prospective voter Jessica Hurt, second from left, while canvassing a neighborhood with his daughter, Hannah, 15, on Nov. 2, 2022, in Downers Grove. (John J. Kim / Chicago Tribune)

“She’s talking about things that I might do based on my funding,” Leong said. “And the reason is because she cannot find a single thing that I have done, voted for or said that is objectionable. That’s really all they have.”

Like other Republicans, Leong criticizes a recent law signed by Pritzker that repealed the parental notification requirement for minors who want an abortion. He said he’d like to see that requirement restored but declined to discuss whether he thinks any other abortion restrictions are needed.

Leong pointed to the Democrats’ controversial criminal justice reform plan, the SAFE-T Act, which Stava-Murray supported, as an example of what can happen when Democrats can pass bills without any Republican votes.

House Democrats also are looking to hold on to the neighboring 41st District, where freshman Rep. Janet Yang Rohr of Naperville defeated three-term Republican Grant Wehrli in 2020.

Unlike Stava-Murray, Yang Rohr, an analyst for Morningstar, took no position on Madigan and received support from the speaker in winning her seat.

Her challenger is Republican Rich Janor, a Naperville Park District commissioner, business owner and high school baseball coach. Janor headed Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign in Naperville and was an alternate delegate for the former president at the 2020 Republican National Convention.

Since July 1, Yang Rohr, 41, has raised more than $1.3 million, compared with about $118,000 raised by Janor, state records show.

Janor said he was inspired to run by the unrest that followed George Floyd’s murder at the hands of police in Minneapolis. Like elsewhere, protests in Naperville turned violent.

“I thought our way of life here was in jeopardy,” Janor said.

Janor has repeatedly accused Yang Rohr of being soft on crime. He inaccurately claimed in a League of Women Voters forum in October that under the SAFE-T Act a police officer couldn’t remove a trespasser sitting in someone’s living room watching TV.

While the law mandates tickets instead of arrests for misdemeanors such as trespassing, an Illinois Supreme Court task force has said police retain the ability to remove a person before issuing a citation.

Yang Rohr, who was not yet a legislator when the SAFE-T Act was approved in early 2021, said the controversy over the elimination of cash bail and misinformation about the law’s effects have overshadowed provisions such as a requirement that all police officers be equipped with body cameras and a move to bring social workers to the scene of mental health emergencies.

Many of those concepts were employed in the Naperville area before the law went into effect, she said.

“We’re now basically making the rest of the state follow along,” Yang Rohr said.

House Democrats aren’t just looking to hold on to seats. They’re also looking to expand their reach in the outer suburbs.

One target is four-term Rep. Keith Wheeler of Oswego in the 83rd District, an assistant GOP leader who could move up in the ranks if reelected. His challenger is Matt Hanson, a former Kane County Board member from Aurora.

Campaign finance records show that Wheeler had more than $298,000 on hand at the beginning of October after spending more than $148,000 in the previous three months. Hanson had just over $64,000 on hand after spending more than $190,000 in the three earlier months, the records show.

Wheeler is seen as one of the more moderate Republicans in the House. He voted for Democratic-led legislation to overhaul the state’s firearm owner’s identification card system prompted by a 2019 mass shooting in Aurora.

“Most of my friends in the Second Amendment world are not for bad guys having guns. They want good guys to have guns. So, it kind of … strikes a reasonable balance and gets something done toward public safety, which is what our goal is,” Wheeler said.

Wheeler opposes abortion in most cases and voted against both the 2019 measure enshrining abortion as a “fundamental right” in state law and last year’s repeal of the parental notification requirement.

Wheeler said he doesn’t oppose abortion in cases of rape, incest or if the mother’s life is in jeopardy.

Hanson, a locomotive engineer and a former Kane County forest preserve commissioner, said the no cash bail provision is “overdue” but says, as do other Democrats including Pritzker, that the SAFE-T Act will be refined in some ways. He stresses the need to deal with mental health issues and address the root causes of crime.

Hanson said he’s also a supporter of reproductive rights.

“It is between a woman and her support structure whether that’d be her doctors, her family, the research that she has to make that decision,” Hanson said. “I shouldn’t have a place in government to tell her what to do with her body or her health decisions.”

Already holding a record 41 seats, Senate Democrats see little room for building their lead and are focused on defending incumbents in tight races.

Those includes Sen. Suzy Glowiak Hilton of Western Springs in the 23rd District, which encompasses eastern DuPage and western Cook counties. She faces former state Rep. Dennis Reboletti, of Elmhurst, who was in the House for four terms beginning in 2007 before making a failed bid for the Senate in 2014.

Glowiak Hilton, a mechanical engineer, is seen as a moderate who earlier this year sponsored a tough-on-crime measure that codified organized retail theft as a separate crime. She, along with two other Democrats, also sided with the Senate GOP in rejecting one of Pritzker’s appointees to the Illinois Prisoner Review Board. Republicans have repeatedly criticized Pritzker for appointing candidates they believe are too lenient.

She also did not support the SAFE-T Act, opting out when it came to a vote. While she said she backed its police accountability measures, “My law enforcement officials were not comfortable with the final product and so I couldn’t support it.

Reboletti, supervisor of Addison Township, said he wants to rejoin the legislature because “as a parent and a grandparent, (it’s) become very frustrating to see the direction that the state has been going.”

“And instead of just sitting and throwing a shoe at the TV, I thought it was time to take action,” he said.

Reboletti said one of his “biggest frustrations” was how the legislature ceded responsibility to Pritzker for dealing with the pandemic.

He said he sees the SAFE-T Act as a “complete disaster.”

While much of the focus is on suburban contests, a race for a central Illinois Senate seat long held by Democrats has become one of the most expensive legislative campaigns this year.

Together, incumbent Democratic state Sen. Doris Turner and her challenger, Republican state Rep. Sandy Hamilton, have raked in more than $4.5 million.

The remapped 48th District stretches from Springfield to Decatur. In 2020, then-Republican President Donald Trump lost the area by more than 4 percentage points, having won that area in 2016 by less than a point.

Turner was appointed to her seat in early 2021 to replace Andy Manar, who became a top Pritzker aide. Hamilton, a real estate agent, was appointed to the House in December to replace retiring state Rep. Mike Murphy.

Turner is a former member of the Sangamon County Board, the Springfield City Council and has worked for the Illinois Department of Public Health.

Hamilton has run an ad highlighting the fact Turner’s husband was, as a state employee, sentenced to prison for a ghost payroll scheme. Authorities have not accused Doris Turner of any wrongdoing.

Turner’s campaign put out a TV ad referring to Hamilton as “Sell Out Sandy,” criticizing her for not supporting a measure in the legislature that aims to make prescription drugs more affordable. Hamilton’s campaign did not make her available for an interview.

dpetrella@chicagotribune.com

jgorner@chicagotribune.com

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November 3, 2022 at 06:59AM

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