By Sara Burnett
LA GRANGE — A Lipinski has represented what’s now Illinois’ 3rd congressional district since U.S. Rep. Dan Lipinski’s father was first elected more than three decades ago. Now the younger Lipinski, a seven-term incumbent known as one of Congress’ most conservative Democrats, is facing a tougher-than-usual primary challenge from the left flank of his party.
Political newcomer Marie Newman says Lipinski, who opposes abortion and voted against President Barack Obama’s 2010 health care overhaul, no longer reflects the Chicago-area district, which supported Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders over Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential primary.
Newman has the backing of abortion rights and progressive groups and some of Lipinski’s Democratic colleagues, including U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez of Illinois and New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, as Newman looks to end what she’s dubbed “the Lipinski monarchy.”
“Folks are fed up, and we’re going to make a change, right now,” the small business owner from LaGrange said during a recent campaign stop. She pledged to represent “true-blue Democrats” by pushing for a $15 minimum wage, health care for all and protections for immigrants and refugees.
Lipinski says he’s worked hard for the district, which includes parts of Chicago’s southwest side and suburbs including LaGrange and Brookfield, helping bring better jobs and transportation dollars. He notes it’s earned him support from labor organizations including the Illinois AFL-CIO, which has about 1,500 affiliated unions statewide, though the Illinois chapter of the Service Employees International Union backed Newman.
“I’m not just a show horse. I’m a workhorse,” he said. “My constituents understand that because of that, I’ve been able to deliver for them.”
The March 20 primary is one of several races nationwide this year in which progressives are targeting longtime Democratic incumbents. In New York, lawyer and businessman Suraj Patel, who worked on President Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns, is trying to unseat Rep. Carolyn Maloney, who was first elected in 1992. Boston-based software developer Brianna Wu, who spoke out about harassment of women in the tech industry during what became known as “GamerGate,” is running against eight-term Rep. Stephen Lynch.
Many challengers, like Newman, say they were inspired to run after seeing people mobilize against the policies of President Donald Trump, or because they’re frustrated by the Democratic establishment.
Lipinski describes the movement as a “tea party of the left.” He says the challenges — and an insistence that all Democrats must be in liberal lockstep on issues — is dividing Democrats and could ultimately hurt the party and its ability to regain control of the House this fall.
He says that while his district has voted reliably Democratic, that could change if someone who is too liberal is elected.
In 2016, the district supported Clinton with 55 percent over Trump’s 40 percent — the lowest margin of any Chicago-area congressional district represented by a Democrat. The same was true in 2012 and 2008.
“We really need to be united in fighting against President Trump,” Lipinski said. “If we’re focused inwards within our own party, that really prevents us from working to try to stop what president trump is doing.”
Newman isn’t buying it.
“There is no ‘tea party of the left,'” she says. “There are true-blue Democrats that are trying to get democracy back in place.”
Defeating Lipinski won’t be easy. His name is entrenched in the area, where his father was first elected congressman in 1982. William Lipinski served until 2004, when he stepped down after the primary, allowing Democratic Party leaders to put his son on the general election ballot in his place.
Dan Lipinski won just more than half the vote in his first two primaries, with the other votes split between two other candidates in 2006 and three others in 2008. Since then he’s either run unopposed or won every contested election by wide margins.
This year the only person running in the GOP primary is an outspoken Holocaust denier.
The Illinois Republican Party, which had unsuccessfully tried to recruit a candidate, denounced self-proclaimed Nazi Arthur Jones but determined it couldn’t get him removed from the ballot. The party is now encouraging people to run as independents or write-in candidates.