The Week in Politics: Police Shootings Oust Prosecutors, Voter ID Gets Tested and More

The most important election news and political dynamics at the state and local levels.
by | March 18, 2016
Protesters in Chicago call for the resignation of Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez. Alvarez was ousted this week. (AP/Charles Rex Arbogast)

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A Bad Night for Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner

Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner, a first-term Republican trying to wrest power from entrenched Democratic lawmakers, stumbled badly in Tuesday’s elections.

In three separate legislative races, candidates aligned with Rauner lost to opponents supported by Democrats or their union allies. Even President Obama weighed in. The defeats were especially startling given the fact that Rauner and affiliated groups spent at least $5 million on the primary contests.

The races were widely seen as part of a long-running conflict between Rauner and Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, a Democrat, over the governor’s efforts to curb the power of labor unions. That conflict has nearly paralyzed the capital of Springfield, and as a result, the state is just one of two that still doesn’t have a budget for the fiscal year that started more than eight months ago.

“Voters in the Democratic primary election made it very clear they want representatives in the state Capitol who will stand up for middle-class families, children and the elderly, not turn their backs on them,” said Madigan in a statement.

A Rauner spokesman, however, noted that other candidates backed by the governor did win their elections Tuesday. But Rauner's wins were in much less visible races than Madigan's.

“The primary elections are over and rather than issuing partisan press releases, the speaker needs to end his month-long vacation and begin working with the governor to enact a balanced budget alongside structural reforms that grow our economy,” said Rauner spokesman Lance Trover.

Madigan, who is head of the state’s Democratic Party, was also fighting for his own seat Tuesday. Little-known Jason Gonzales, a 42-year-old consultant who had only recently moved to the district, challenged the speaker with a relatively large sum of $1 million, mostly from donors who also backed Rauner. But Madigan hit back hard with TV ads and campaign materials highlighting Gonzales’ criminal history from two decades ago. He was convicted of six crimes, including forgery, theft and illegally using a credit card when he was a teenager.

The speaker walked away with 65 percent of the vote, compared to Gonzales’ 27 percent, in a four-way race.

The marquee result of the night, though, was Madigan’s successful ouster of one of his own party members: Rep. Ken Dunkin, who first joined the Illinois House in 2002. In the past year, Dunkin defected from the Democrats’ side on many key votes, including overrides of many Rauner vetoes on budget measures and a labor-friendly arbitration bill. Without Dunkin's vote, the Democrats were unable to override Rauner's vetoes.

In the race between Dunkin and challenger Juliana Stratton, more than $6 million was spent, which is more than twice the amount Democratic presidential contenders Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders combined spent in all of Illinois. Rauner’s allies bankrolled much of Dunkin’s campaign, while unions and establishment Democrats supported Stratton.

Obama, once himself an Illinois state senator, weighed in. He rebuked Dunkin in person during a speech he gave to Illinois lawmakers and cut a TV ad endorsing Stratton.

Stratton won 68 percent to 32 percent.

The third race was on the Republican side, where the governor tried to oust Sam McCann, a Springfield-area state senator who sided with public employee unions on a key vote (many unionized state workers live in McCann’s district).

McCann held on to his seat by a margin of 53 percent to 47 percent.

While the trio of defeats is embarrassing for Rauner politically, as a practical matter, they won’t help either side for months to come. The incumbents will remain in office, and even the ousted Dunkin won’t be forced to leave office until next January. By that time, the balance of power between the governor and speaker could change again with the results of the general elections in November.

Anger Over Police Shootings Ousts 2 Prosecutors

Prosecutors in both Chicago and Cleveland lost their jobs in Tuesday’s elections because of voter outrage over how they handled fatal police shootings of unarmed black youth.

In Cleveland, the first-term Cuyahoga County district attorney, Tim McGinty, lost his post amid concerns over how he handled the case of the police officer who shot and killed an unarmed black 12-year-old named Tamir Rice. A grand jury announced in December that it would not indict the officer who shot Rice or the officer’s partner, even though the shooting happened within seconds of the officers arriving on the scene. Rice’s family criticized McGinty and protested at his house calling for voters to oust him.

The local Democratic party pointedly did not endorse McGinty for re-election, and his challenger, Michael O’Malley, a prosecutor under McGinty’s predecessor, criticized him for being out of touch with the community.

O’Malley ultimately beat the incumbent 55 percent to 45 percent.

In Chicago, the election for Cook County state’s attorney was a much more heated affair. Incumbent Anita Alvarez took more than a year to charge the cop who killed 17-year-old Laquan McDonald with murder, even though video from a police dashcam showed he was shot 16 times. Alvarez, who already had a reputation for protecting police officers, filed the charges the day before the video was made public.

In the end, Democrats overwhelmingly voted to replace Alvarez with Kim Foxx, a former prosecutor in the Cook County state's attorney's office.

Other Election News You May Have Missed

North Carolina Governor’s Race Set: As expected, North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory cruised to victory in the Republican primary in his bid for a second term. He will face the state’s Democratic attorney general, Roy Cooper, in November. Cooper also easily prevailed in the Democratic primary Tuesday. He faced an opponent who had criticized him for defending GOP-backed laws and for not re-trying a Charlotte police officer who killed an unarmed black man.

The North Carolina race is likely to be the most competitive of the 11 gubernatorial races this year, and McCrory the most vulnerable incumbent. North Carolina has been a swing state in recent presidential elections, but Republicans have dominated at the state level since McCrory’s election in 2012. The GOP’s ambitious agenda has included large tax cuts, an end to teacher tenure, a new voter ID law, funding cuts for higher education and preemption of local laws (especially laws passed by Democrats). All of those issues are likely to resurface in the contest between McCrory and Cooper.

New Voter ID Law Put to the Test: This week’s primary was the first time North Carolina enforced its 2013 voter ID law, which is currently being challenged in court. At least 864 voters -- including one U.S. senator -- had to cast provisional ballots because they didn’t have appropriate ID when they went to vote. It won’t be long before the law undergoes its second test: North Carolina will hold another primary election June 7 for congressional races.

17-Year-Olds Get a Say in 2 States: The voting age for presidential primaries in Ohio effectively dropped days before the primary. A judge ruled in favor of a lawsuit to let 17-year-olds vote in the presidential contests, as long as they will be 18 by Election Day in November. With the change, Ohio becomes the 21st state to allow 17-year-olds to vote. Tuesday also marked the first time 17-year-olds in Illinois could vote in presidential primaries after passage of a law in 2014.

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