State Rep. Ken Dunkin (D-Chicago) made an election day push for votes Tuesday morning, speaking with Chicagoans at the Ms. Biscuit restaurant in the Washington Park neighborhood.
Progress Illinois caught up with Dunkin at the restaurant, located at 5431 S. Wabash Ave., where he spent about 15 minutes chatting with diners.
Dunkin is locked in a highly contentious and expensive race to retain his 5th House district seat. He is being challenged by Juliana Stratton, who has the backing of many labor groups, including SEIU* Healthcare Illinois.
"I have been an SEIU supporter for years -- for years," Dunkin told Progress Illinois, which is sponsored by the SEIU Illinois Council. "Huge supporter. Huge supporter. They know it. Big time."
"[House Speaker] Mike Madigan tells 'em to go one way, and they follow his lead," he said. "But the workers who they represent, that's who I represent."
Dunkin has faced fierce criticism from many state residents and politicians who argue the state representative went against his constituents and party priorities when he failed to vote for legislation that would have reversed Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner's funding cuts to the Child Care Assistance Program and senior services. He also missed a key Democrat-backed vote to override Rauner's veto of a major labor bill.
Rauner opposed the labor bill in question, which sought the use of binding arbitration to resolve labor disputes between his administration and unions. It would have also prohibited a state worker strike or lockout. The bill, supported by Democrats, was introduced amid ongoing contract negotiations between the Rauner administration and AFSCME.
Rauner's administration has claimed that the binding arbitration bill could result in higher costs for the state. His office has also argued that AFSCME sought a contract that would cost the state $2 billion for worker wages and benefits.
The vote to override Rauner's labor bill veto fell three votes shy, with state Rep. Scott Drury (D-Highwood) breaking ranks with Democrats and voting "no" and Rep. Jack Franks (D-Marengo) voting present.
Dunkin, who missed the vote altogether, said he is "the only one that's being primaried" on the Democratic side over the issue.
The state rep defended his voting record.
"In politics we try to negotiate and put things out there that benefit people. You're not gonna get everything you want all the time," he said. "My goal is to have the $2 billion released out to the homemakers, to the child care providers, to the developmentally disabled, to the personal home care assistants. There was nothing out there originally. The governor would have held onto that money and starved those programs."
Dunkin has claimed he served as a "negotiator" in Rauner's more recent moves to reverse some the administration's cuts to day care and senior services.
"It's not perfect, but that was my goal to keep those doors open" for child care providers, who "were about to close" as a result of Rauner's initial child care cuts, Dunkin said.
"So I have been 100 percent supportive of the working families," Dunkin said.
Stratton's campaign, meanwhile, has called Dunkin a "sellout" to Rauner.
"They don't know the facts. They don't know my record," Dunkin said.
Spending in the hotly contested 5th district race has surpassed $5 million.
While Stratton has received financial support from labor groups, some Rauner-affiliated operatives are backing Dunkin, who got a $500,000 campaign contribution last month from the Illinois Opportunity Project (IOP), which has ties to the GOP and "promotes public policy solutions rooted in economic liberty and the leaders who advance such solutions," according to the organization's website.
The 5th district race -- which some political observers have described as a proxy battle between Rauner and Madigan -- has even garnered the attention of President Barack Obama, who made a rare move last week by endorsing Stratton.
Dunkin said the president's decision to get involved in the race "was beneath him and the dignity of that office."
"The president should have endorsed someone at the U.S. Senate level here in the state of Illinois. He should have chimed in on the state's attorney's race," Dunkin said. "He should have chimed in on Flint, Michigan. He was mute. He's been mute on Laquan McDonald."
"He needs to come up with a plan that's gonna add value to the communities that catapulted him," Dunkin added. "The symbolism of our president is wonderful, but we're past that. People want to eat. We need workers protected. We need people making money that they can actually thrive off of, and not just exist. So that's where it is. I'm surprised he would stoop to the level of a state House race. And he hasn't chimed in at all in any national race. Not even a countywide race, let alone a statewide race for U.S. Senate ... Who made the phone call to him? I think him being in this race was beneath him and the dignity of that office."
Dunkin also discussed the state budget impasse, which is now in its ninth month.
"Republicans and Democrats have to talk and get the job done," Dunkin said. "The average person out here could care less what our political affiliation is. We have to put people over politics."
Dunkin plans to make other campaign stops today in the district.
Should he win tonight, "We gonna sing the jubilee," Dunkin said, "and I'm gonna invite everybody under the big tent."
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