By Rich Miller
President Barack Obama seemed to admit almost right from the start of his address to the Illinois General Assembly last week about the need for a more civil politics that he probably wouldn’t sway his audience, which has been bickering amongst itself for over a year.
Obama talked about his first Illinois Senate speech, after which Republican Senate President Pate Philip “sauntered” over to his desk, slapped him on the back and said, “Kid, that was a pretty good speech. In fact, I think you changed a lot of minds. But you didn’t change any votes.”
Frankly, after months without any progress in Springfield, I’d settle for a few changed minds. But I’m not even sure a single mind was changed. Instead, the speech gave people on both entrenched sides just enough ammo to bolster their cases against the other.
Predictably, Obama weighted the argument in favor of his own policy views, bringing up his support for union collective bargaining, which Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner has repeatedly attacked.
But he threw just enough bones at the Republicans to allow them to issue statements like the one from GOP state Rep. Barb Wheeler: “The President reiterated what the Governor and others have said before, without compromise we cannot govern.”
It might come as a shock to Democrats, but the vast majority of Republicans truly believe that Rauner has tried to compromise and the Democrats are refusing to budge. So, the President’s words were music to their ears.
Obama said he believed many Republicans “share” many of his values, adding, “And where I’ve got an opportunity to find some common ground, that doesn’t make me a sellout to my own party.”
At that moment, Rep. Ken Dunkin, D-Chicago, jumped from his seat and yelled “Heck yeah!” Dunkin has portrayed himself as diligently working to move things forward by cooperating with Gov. Rauner. But he’s been thrashed by his fellow Democrats for being a “sellout” to the wealthy Republican governor by suddenly flip-flopping on issues and voting against his party’s values, including union rights.
“Well, we’ll talk later, Dunkin, you just sit down,” Obama said to uproarious applause. “One thing I’ve learned is folks don’t change.”
The line was a devastating slash at Dunkin, who Obama dealt with when he was still in the General Assembly.
Chicago Tribune columnist John Kass quickly tweeted: “So #Obama tells #Illinois pols about need for compromise, then rips Rep. Dunkin, D, who dared go against Boss Madigan. That’s #thechicagoway.”
But Kass did Dunkin no favors. Rep. Dunkin is fighting for his political life in a Chicago Democratic primary against a union-backed candidate. Call me crazy, but I don’t think his majority African-American constituency will be happy that their state legislator was publicly humiliated by the nation’s first black President.
Word is the Democrats warned the White House that Dunkin would attempt to insert himself into the visit, and they were quite satisfied with the result. They may have also warned the President that Dunkin’s 1990s arrest record was about to become an issue in his primary race.
Even so, House Speaker Michael Madigan made a significant mistake last week. Obama has often called former Senate President Emil Jones his political “godfather.” Jones mentored Obama, gave him important assignments and drew a district for him that meandered up Chicago’s wealthy Gold Coast to allow the ambitious young pol to raise campaign cash from the elite. No Emil Jones, no President Obama. The President gave Jones a couple of shout-outs during his speech and said he misses him.
But Jones and Madigan fought bitterly for years. Indeed, if you go back and look at what Senate Black Caucus members were saying about Madigan during that fight, you’d see they said many of the same harsh things about Madigan as Gov. Rauner says today.
Madigan relegated Jones to the gallery while inviting former legislators of far less stature onto the House floor. Madigan’s snub was deeply resented by many and brought back a lot of very bad memories.
If Rauner had done a better job of understanding his job, he’d be able to build on this anger at Madigan. But making statements about how tax money is being thrown down the “toilet” at the majority black Chicago State University, and cozying up to Dunkin (who just last week called his fellow legislators “monkeys”) and pushing social service agencies into bankruptcy has so damaged his relationships that he probably can’t take much advantage.
“We’re winning,” Rauner told a Downstate audience hours after Obama’s “unity” speech. No, he’s not. Nobody is.