CHICAGO – Illinois state lawmakers facing tough votes in an election year may be emboldened by the results of Tuesday's primary, which show that most incumbents survived challenges from within their own party even if they supported pension reform or gay marriage.
But two incumbent Democrats lost despite backing from Democratic leaders such as powerful Speaker Michael Madigan, delivering a mixed message not to underestimate the power of organized labor, which delivers key financial support and votes to the party.
Though the wins came by slim margins, two of three Democratic state lawmakers who defied labor unions and backed pension reform will advance to the general election. Both House Republicans who faced primary challenges for breaking with party conservatives and supporting gay marriage were also successful.
"I'm going to vote my conscience, I'm going to vote my district and I'm not just going to vote for a Republican primary crowd," state GOP Rep. Ron Sandack said. "I think I'm helping devise a roadmap for larger electoral success for our party."
Sandack, a first-term lawmaker and former Downers Grove Mayor, eked out a 153-vote primary victory over Waubonsie High School teacher Keith Matune, who saw conservative political action committees spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to bolster his campaign with television ads and mailers criticizing Sandack for "getting in bed with the radical left to get re-elected."
Sandack's fellow House Republican, Rep. Ed Sullivan of Mundelein, also survived a challenge fueled by conservative groups unhappy with his vote for same sex marriage.
"I found out I have a fiscally conservative and very common sense compassionate district," Sullivan said.
On the Democratic side, organized labor groups failed to defeat some Democratic House members from Chicago who supported the pension overhaul. The measure, approved by lawmakers in December, is estimated to save $145 billion over 30 years, largely by cutting worker benefits.
State Rep. Christian Mitchell narrowly bested Jhatayn "Jay" Travis, a community organizer who had hundreds of thousands of dollars in union support.
Mitchell said he never wavered in his decision to vote for pension reform, despite heavy opposition from teachers unions. Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis is a resident of his Chicago district.
"I did what I thought was right. And voters made a smart decision," Mitchell said. "I'm honored by it and I hope I will be an example to others."
State Rep. Jaime Andrade Jr. also fended off four challengers, including attorney Nancy Schiavone, whose campaign was bankrolled by unions.
But unions were able to take down one Democratic lawmaker, six-term Rep. Toni Berrios, who lost to journalist Will Guzzardi after voting in favor of some of Madigan's pension proposals.
"Tonight this community stood together and we demanded new leadership," Guzzardi said. "We said with one voice that working people who earned their retirement deserved to get it."
A second Democrat, state Rep. Derrick Smith, lost to attorney Pamela Reaves-Harris by several hundred votes after he was indicted for corruption in 2012.
Kent Redfield, professor emeritus at the University of Illinois Springfield, said the primary results ultimately sent a "mixed message" to lawmakers this year as the Legislature decides whether to extend tax increases, offer corporate tax incentives to keep businesses in Illinois, reform pensions for Chicago city workers, and possibly approve capital construction projects.
"I think if you're risk averse, as most legislators are, this may embolden some Democrats to go against the Speaker on some issues," Redfield said. "Their message is going to be, 'you don't want to lead us too far out on a limb.'"