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New Third-Party Candidate Poses Threat to Illinois Governor

A Downstate Republican lawmaker launched a third-party bid for governor on Thursday, exacerbating the challenges facing Gov. Bruce Rauner's re-election as he seeks to heal divisions within his party's base to take on Democrat J.B. Pritzker.

By Rick Pearson

A Downstate Republican lawmaker launched a third-party bid for governor on Thursday, exacerbating the challenges facing Gov. Bruce Rauner's re-election as he seeks to heal divisions within his party's base to take on Democrat J.B. Pritzker.

Sen. Sam McCann of central Illinois announced he'll run under a new Conservative Party label, and in an opening video he criticized Rauner for helping Chicago Democrats control the state.

"I'm the only person in this race who has consistently stood up to Rauner and (Democratic House Speaker Michael) Madigan and their machine when it came time to fight for the rights of working people in Illinois. As your governor, I will continue to lead that fight," McCann said.

"They have failed us: Rauner and Chicago Democrats have led our state down the wrong path. Higher taxes, backward morals and disregard for the rule of law is the Illinois they've created. It's time for a real transformation for the state of Illinois," he said.

The union-allied lawmaker's entry into the race represents a form of political payback to Rauner, who two years ago backed a challenger to McCann after McCann split with the governor over a major labor issue. McCann survived and remained in the Senate.

His candidacy also comes as Rauner tries to mollify social conservatives in the Republican base, particularly Downstate, following his narrow primary victory over state Rep. Jeanne Ives of Wheaton last month.

It isn't yet clear, though, that McCann's name will appear on the November ballot because he first needs to collect tens of thousands of petition signatures on a tight deadline. Still, the political impact of his nascent campaign immediately was reflected in the words of both Rauner and Pritzker.

Rauner's campaign called McCann the "worst kind of political opportunist," and the Illinois Republican Party that the governor has heavily subsidized called McCann a "crook" and a "spoiler."

Pritzker said he welcomed McCann to the race as "another voice" for voters to consider.

McCann responded to Pritzker's statement on Twitter, thanking him and saying he looks "forward to having serious debate about the issues facing Illinois."

McCann, of Plainview, first won his Senate seat in 2010 and opted against a re-election bid this year. He toyed with a similar bid for governor in 2014 when Rauner was first elected. On Thursday he said, "The Republican Party under Rauner was unrecognizable to me."

Rauner and McCann previously have clashed over issues involving organized labor. Representing a largely rural legislative district south of Springfield with many state and union workers, McCann has enjoyed union backing in past contests. He has received more than $105,000 from organized labor already this year.

Earlier this week, he received $50,000 from the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 150, a politically active union that has fought against Rauner's efforts to weaken collective bargaining and prevailing wage rights. The union backed Pritzker's Democratic bid for governor in May 2017, less than a month after he announced his candidacy.

To get on the ballot, McCann has until June 25 to obtain the valid signatures of 25,000 voters. Candidates typically try to file twice the number of signatures just to be safe from a petition challenge -- which he would be expected to face.

Whether he succeeds or not, McCann's new effort disparaging Rauner keeps open the wounds created by Ives' primary challenge.

Last month Rauner defeated Ives by less than 3 percentage points, after she attacked the governor for expanding abortion, immigration and transgender rights and for supporting an agenda that helps Chicago against the rest of the state.

McCann renewed attacks on several of those fronts on Thursday.

"I will be a governor who fights for the millions of Illinoisans who believe in traditional values and the sanctity of life and that hard work should be rewarded," he said.

He also criticized Rauner for signing legislation that prohibits law enforcement from holding someone based solely on the issue of their residency. The governor has said the legislation was backed by law enforcement and did not grant "sanctuary" status. McCann's video showed a clip of Rauner saying, "buenos dias," or "good morning" in Spanish.

"Law and order have vanished in the last four years under Rauner. Sanctuary for illegal immigrants and attacks on our Second Amendment rights is what we have now thanks to Rauner and Chicago Democrats," he said. "We need a governor who will support our federal government to deport illegal immigrants, stand up for the police who protect our families and defend our Second Amendment rights."

A construction company owner, McCann has faced controversies in the past over tax liens owed by his firms, his military record and use of campaign money.

He has blamed the tax liens on confusion over "various employer identification numbers" used at his businesses. Former political opponents also have taken issue with how he described his military record. He was injured in a construction accident before going to Marine boot camp and said he had been discharged.

He also acknowledged last year using campaign funds to purchase a $61,000 SUV, as well as an engine for a personally owned Jeep and more than $19,000 for a truck and trailer for parades. Campaign money can't be spent for personal use, and McCann has said the miles he drives for politics makes leasing a vehicle cost-prohibitive.

Rauner's campaign sought to mark the launch of McCann's campaign with those controversies.

"Sam McCann is the worst kind of political opportunist who is only running for governor to line his own pockets," Rauner spokesman Will Allison said in a statement. "McCann's unethical record speaks for itself: He failed to pay his taxes, racked up massive debts, lied about serving in the Marine Corps, and used his campaign account as a personal piggy bank, even buying himself an SUV."

(c)2018 the Chicago Tribune

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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