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Miller: Unions still organizing plan for Illinois governor's race

Illinois union leaders are reportedly mulling several options about what to do in the governor’s race.

The only thing the leaders appear to agree on so far is that anti-union Republican gazillionaire Bruce Rauner cannot be allowed to win.

Some union honchos are looking at endorsing a candidate in the Republican primary. State Sen. Kirk Dillard, for instance, already has strong support from the Operating Engineers, a union that is now even more opposed to Rauner since the candidate’s endorsement by the strongly anti-union Associated Builders and Contractors group.  Other unions also have taken keen notice of that endorsement.

Surprisingly enough, Dillard also is being looked at by some public-employee unions. They’re hoping that he’ll be a “no” vote on pension reform. Dillard told the Kankakee Daily Journal several days ago that he wants employees to pay more into the system and wants a later retirement age, neither of which appear to be in the cards at the moment. Dillard would know what was going on behind the scenes with the pension reform conference committee because his running mate, Rep. Jil Tracy, sits on the committee.

However he chooses to explain it, a “no” vote on pension reform could bring him closer to a possible union nod.

Then again, Dillard told the Sun-Times last week that he had always supported pension reform and denied rumors that he was planning to vote against the bill. But even a pension bill “yes” vote will not, in and of itself, prevent some unions from endorsing Dillard.

Dillard’s campaign has struggled to raise money, barely able to meet its expenses (if that), so a labor endorsement would bring in much needed dollars.

Unions have backed Dillard in the past, to the tune of $400,000 from public-employee unions alone during his career. They know he’s a social conservative (he was endorsed last week by noted figures on the far right like Phyllis Schlafly and Penny Pullen), but they feel they can at least get a fair hearing from him.

Treasurer Dan Rutherford has tried to reach out to labor, particularly on the pension issue. He has attempted to steer away from taking a hard public line on pension reform, urging compromise. But Rutherford doesn’t have much history with the unions, so he’ll have to work very hard to woo labor leaders if he wants their support. Dillard speaks their language while Rutherford is more of an unknown quantity. Rutherford’s campaign has far more money on hand than Dillard’s, but nowhere near enough to compete with Rauner.

Still, does any candidate really want organized labor’s support in a Republican gubernatorial primary? If you’ll recall, a Capitol Fax/We Ask America poll conducted Aug. 21 found that a whopping 80 percent of likely GOP primary voters said they’d be less inclined to vote for a Republican candidate for governor “who received hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from public-employee unions.”

So, others in organized labor are strenuously arguing against any endorsement at all, believing today’s Republican Party voters are so hostile to labor’s interests that overt support for a preferred union candidate would almost surely result in a political death sentence and result in a host of unknown, uncontrollable possibilities.

That particular faction is arguing hard for an all-out assault on Rauner during the primary. None of the other candidates would be nearly as hostile to labor’s interest as Rauner would be, goes the reasoning.

An all-out TV advertising assault on Rauner could knock him out of contention. There’s a thick opposition research book on Rauner, but his association with Democrats such as Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel would be just as enormously toxic for GOP primary voters as public-employee campaign contributions (83 percent less likely to support, according to an August Capitol Fax/We Ask America poll).

However, some labor leaders say that Gov. Pat Quinn has been moving to the opinion that running against Rauner might not be so horrible after all. Despite Rauner’s potential to spend tens of millions of dollars next year, some Quinn backers think Rauner’s background gives them enough ammunition to thump him.

Yeah, well, Rauner has enough of a personal fortune to stay on the air from now through next November without a break. His ads are already focused on painting Quinn as the bad guy, and that theme will only intensify if he wins the GOP primary. He could bury Quinn before the governor has a chance to bury him.

• Rich Miller publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and CapitolFax.com.

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