PI Original Ellyn Fortino Monday October 27th, 2014, 7:20pm

Election Preview: A Look At The Expensive 55th District State Rep. Race

Progress Illinois takes a closer look at the state representative race in the 55th district.

The state representative contest in Illinois' northwest suburban 55th district is one of the hottest and most expensive legislative races this election season.

Incumbent freshman State Rep. Marty Moylan (D-Des Plaines) is running against businessman Mel Thillens (R-Park Ridge) in the state House's 55th district.

Moylan, the former mayor of Des Plaines, was first elected to the state legislature in 2012 after beating Republican Susan Sweeney in the open race for the 55th state representative seat.

Thillens is vice president of Thillens Inc., his family-owned Chicago armored truck cash delivery company, and also serves as board president of the Park Ridge Park District.

The election battle in the 55th district, which covers portions of Des Plaines, Elk Grove Village and Park Ridge, is the fourth most expensive 2014 Illinois House race, according to the Illinois Campaign For Political Reform's Sunshine Database, which provides an analysis of campaign finance in the state.

In the 55th district race, the funds raised by the candidates' campaign committees and outside spending has thus far exceeded $2.2 million, the database showed.

The 55th district House seat is one of several that state Republicans are hoping to pick up in an attempt to end the 60 percent Democratic supermajority in the House. A Republican pickup of just one House seat would undo the supermajority, which gives Democrats the ability to override any governor's veto if they act in unison.

State Democrats gained veto-proof majorities in both the Illinois House and Senate in the 2012 election. Democrats currently have a 71-47 advantage over the GOP in the House. And the disparity is larger in the Senate, with 40 Democrats and 19 Republicans.

"This race is so important," Thillens said earlier this month. "If we win, (House Speaker) Mike Madigan loses his supermajority in the House. It's important that we do that."

In an interview with the Daily Herald, Moylan said his Republican challenger is "trying to make this about someone else."

"This is about me and him," Moylan said of the race. "My record versus his record. My views versus his views. This is a competitive district and that's the way I like it."

All 118 state House seats are on the ballot this election, and 47 of the races are contested, said Kent Redfield, emeritus professor of political science at the University of Illinois at Springfield. In the state Senate, just 20 seats are up for grabs, and only a few of the races are competitive.

"There is not a lot of competition in the map," Redfield noted. "That limits the field in terms of where there's a possibility of change. The Republicans ... see this [55th district] race as a possibility of picking up a seat, and that's why their investing in it. Obviously the House Democrats want to defend their incumbents, and so you get this escalation of spending ... There's some offense on the part of the Democrats, but mostly they're playing defense" this election cycle.

State political parties have pumped large amounts of cash into the Moylan versus Thillens race, with a good chunk of the funds being used to blanket the district with campaign literature and TV ads.

The Democratic Party of Illinois, chaired by House Speaker Michael Madigan (D-Chicago), and the Democratic Majority campaign committee, which Madigan also controls, are among Moylan's top 2014 election contributors, the Sunshine Database shows. Thillens, according to the database, has received top financial support from the Illinois Republican Party, chaired by Cook County Commissioner Tim Schneider, and the Illinois House Republican Organization, controlled by House Minority Leader Jim Durkin (R-Western Springs).

"Hyper expensive" legislative races is one reason why state political party "leaders are so strong and power becomes so centralized in the General Assembly in both caucuses," Redfield explained.

"If you're not relying on a leader, you're really going to be outdone," he added. "That obviously gives the leaders leverage when you get to Springfield -- the fact that they played such a big role in these elections."

GOP gubernatorial candidate Bruce Rauner and his wife Diana have also collectively donated $21,200 to Thillens' campaign in individual contributions, Illinois State Board of Election records show.

Additionally, Rauner has donated $5 million to the state Republican Party, and "some of that money is filtering down to legislative races," Redfield noted.

Rauner's long-term strategy involves "trying to extend his influence in terms of getting more Republicans in the legislature and getting Republicans in the legislature that he can work with [if he's elected governor], and so that's another thread" in the 55th district race, Redfield explained.

Moylan overall has raked in more campaign cash from interest groups, individuals and companies than Thillens, Redfield said.

"That's not unusual for an incumbent," he noted. "Incumbents are generally able to raise more money, and challengers are more dependent on leadership or independent expenditures."

Key Issues

Thillens, through a spokesperson, declined an interview for this story. Repeated interview requests were not returned by Moylan's campaign.

In Daily Herald candidate questionnaire, Thillens said he is running for state representative because he has "had enough" of the "endless tax increases" and "Madigan's stranglehold on our economy."

Moylan, in his questionnaire, said his focus as a state representative is "working to eliminate the budget deficit and restore Illinois' economy."

Moylan and Thillens find common ground on some issues.

Both candidates share the same opinion that Illinois elected officials should have term limits. Moylan and Thillens are both pro-choice. They also agree that the state's 2011 temporary income tax hike should sunset as planned come January.

If the state's temporary income tax increase rolls back next year, the personal income tax will change from its current 5 percent to 3.75 percent, and the corporate income tax will drop from 7 percent to 5.25 percent. Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn, who wants to keep the higher tax rates in place, has warned that "extreme and radical cuts will be imposed on education and critical public services" if the tax hike rolls back. Rauner wants to let the tax lapse and has said the revenue hole could be filled in part by slashing the budget in other areas and broadening the sales tax on services.

During his first term in the legislature, Moylan has not favored a renewal of the state's income tax hike. Moylan has noted that the first bill he sponsored sought to do away with the 67 percent income tax increase.

"Every day I meet hard-working families that are struggling to make ends, and rolling back the tax increase will provide the relief they need to put food on the table, and pay their bills," Moylan stated.

Thillens does "not intend to support any new or increased taxes or fees" if elected to the state legislature.

"If we want to bring back jobs to Illinois, we must lower taxes," he said.

The 55th district candidates have different views, however, on whether the state should lift its minimum wage, which is currently $8.25 an hour and $1 higher than the federal level.

Thillens argues that a state minimum wage increase could hurt job growth.

"We should leave [the] Illinois minimum wage rate where it is and allow the federal government to address the issue for all states," the Republican said.

A full-time minimum wage worker in Illinois earns just $17,000 a year, and Moylan maintains that such a wage is simply not enough for people to afford basic necessities. The Democrat backs boosting the state's base hourly wage to $10.

"The truth is more people in the middle class are working at fast food restaurants trying to raise families on the minimum wage," Moylan told the Daily Herald's editorial board. "It should be at least $10 an hour."

A non-binding November ballot question will ask Illinois voters whether the state's minimum wage should be raised to $10 an hour. Also appearing on the statewide ballot is an advisory referendum about whether the state should impose an extra 3 percent tax on incomes over $1 million.

The proposed "millionaire tax," pushed by Madigan, is intended to help pay for public education. The tax would bring in an estimated $1 billion for schools if it were approved. Madigan abandoned his proposed constitutional amendment for a millionaire tax during the last legislative session after it was apparent that he lacked the necessary votes to pass it.

Moylan is in favor of the millionaire tax plan, saying it "would help our public schools so they won't have to raise property taxes on the middle class."

Thillens does not support the millionaire tax, reiterating his objection to new taxes. He also claims the proposal would result in more Illinoisans and companies leaving the state.

Moylan, who considers himself to be a fiscal conservative, has criticized his opponent on tax matters, noting that Thillens voted to hike property taxes as a Park Ridge Park District board member. The Democrat has stressed that he did not increase Des Plaines property taxes when he was mayor of that city from 2009 to 2012.

"As mayor of Des Plaines, I did not raise property taxes," he said. "I shrunk government and created jobs in the private sector. I took over in 2009 in the middle of the recession. You have to judge a person by what he's done."

On the issue of state pensions, Moylan backed SB 1, the controversial state pension reform overhaul, which passed through the legislature last December and is currently facing a legal challenge from a coalition of labor unions based on its constitutionality. Moylan was asked by the Daily Herald in a candidate Q & A to detail his ideas on a back up pension plan if the courts were to find SB 1 to be unconstitutional, but the Democrat did not provide a direct answer.

"All stakeholders realized that something had to be done to address the state's massive pension debt and prevent further damage to Illinois and its credit rating. We needed to ensure that the pension funds remain solvent and provide those who have paid into the systems diligently can receive a retirement," he said. "Every year the pension payments grow it creates more instability and risk for both state funded programs and job creators. As we put more money towards the growing pension payments, we are forced to cut funding for crucial services like K-12 education, services for seniors, veterans' programs and public safety."

Thillens' answer to the newspaper also lacked specifics. He said "the state employee pension bankruptcy problem was caused by Democrat legislators who made lofty promises in return for union contributions to their campaign funds for the last 30 years, and then broke those promises."

"We need to change the process going forward, and to do that we need to bring all stakeholders to the table and make some tough decisions," Thillens added.

Thillens does, however, support a state pension shift to a 401(K)-style retirement system.

"This could save the state $2 billion and allow the people who work for state to control their own retirement funds instead of trusting it with the politicians who have already let them down," he told the Park Ridge Herald-Advocate. "We should start by eliminating legislator-defined benefit pensions entirely."

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