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With growing anger over shutdown, Republicans saw opportunity to send a message in special pandemic session

Chicago Tribune logo Chicago Tribune 2 days ago By Rick Pearson, Jamie Munks and Dan Petrella, Chicago Tribune

Illinois Republicans saw political opportunity in the legislature’s special pandemic session, a chance to appeal to residents frustrated and angry over Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s stay-at-home orders ahead of November campaigns in a state trending even more strongly Democratic.

But the GOP’s efforts to leverage Pritzker’s pandemic rules to attract supporters of reopening the state’s economy became overshadowed by internal friction, political self-aggrandizement and the baggage of being associated with fringe protesters.

As what was scheduled to be a three-day session stretched into overtime and went into Saturday, Republicans’ ongoing outrage over the lockdown were a political aside, as lawmakers on Friday took steps toward putting together a budget that relies on up to $5 billion in loans from the Federal Reserve to make up for a dramatic decline in tax revenues due to business closings and record joblessness.

Democratic lawmakers in the Senate also gave final approval to an enhanced vote-by-mail program for the fall election, sending ballot applications to millions in advance of the Nov. 3 election, and also agreed on a plan aimed at allowing people on the job who become infected with the coronavirus to receive workers’ compensation benefits.

For Republicans facing a 74-44 minority in the House and a 40-19 deficit in the Senate, growing disgruntlement over Pritzker’s stay-at-home order offered a ripe opportunity to build support beyond the party’s largely rural base and into the suburbs, where the party has seen its once-solid majority erode in recent years.

“Nobody likes the closings so they can oppose it. Great. Perfect. Then there’ll be people on their side,” Christopher Mooney, a political scientist at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said of the GOP strategy.

“Republicans have very little policy risk. They can advocate for opening (the state) up and if Pritzker doesn’t do it, they were saying the positive things that people like to hear and then they don’t have the risk of potentially having a disaster that occurs,” Mooney said.

Senate Republicans held a news conference outside the Capitol on Friday morning to continue pressing for lawmakers to have a greater voice in determining how the Illinois economy emerges from the shutdown.

“We don’t need a show. We need the legislature to come to terms in a bipartisan way with the governor,” Senate GOP leader Bill Brady of Bloomington said.

“There’s only one way we’re going to have fiscal sanity in this state, and that is to re-engage our economy as fast as we can, as safely as we can,” Brady said.

Even as they make their argument, however, Mooney said Republicans are engaging in a “high-stakes gamble” because those protesting for a reopening of the state’s economy have included fringe elements displaying signs comparing the state’s Jewish governor to Adolf Hitler and Nazis.

There are also GOP legislators adopting a hard-right alignment with President Donald Trump in a state he is widely expected to lose.

“Going with a hardcore Trump angle on this, and associating themselves with Trump, because Trump is so unpopular in this state, it’s likely to hurt the Republicans in the suburbs while it’s going to shore them up in deep Southern Illinois,” Mooney said.

As a buildup for the special legislative session, GOP state lawmakers and candidates for the fall election, as well as state Republican Party Chairman Tim Schneider, appeared at protest rallies the weekend before in Chicago and Springfield to tap into the discontent — using red-meat rhetoric.

“We are able to identify our enemies both foreign and domestic,” state Rep. Chris Miller, a Republican from Oakland in east-central Illinois, said at a Capitol rally, according to footage from Quincy Media. “We have identified China as a foreign enemy. We have identified our domestic enemies in Nancy Pelosi and J.B. Pritzker. She wants to destroy the United States of America and he wants to destroy the state of Illinois.”

A ripe target of wrath was the Pritzker’s administration’s quiet submission of a rules change that would have allowed business owners who reopened in violation of his stay-at-home orders to face a criminal misdemeanor charge punishable by jail, though the governor said incarceration was never his intent.

Even Democrats privately acknowledged Pritzker’s proposed rule would be rejected by a bipartisan legislative rule-making panel, prompting the governor to withdraw it. But the Republican victory was obfuscated by the actions of GOP state Rep. Darren Bailey of Xenia.

Bailey was ejected from the temporary home of the House, the Bank of Springfield convention center, in an 81-27 bipartisan vote for violating rules by refusing to wear a face mask to show his defiance of Pritzker.

Bailey was back with a mask the following day, but on Friday he took to social media to erroneously use 2018 pre-COVID-19 TV file footage that showed Pritzker without a mask. Bailey later deleted his tweet.

Bailey has become the symbol for growing dysfunction and division within the Republican legislative ranks between its hard-right faction and more moderate members. A frequent Pritzker critic, Bailey is part of a faction of Downstate rural lawmakers who have sought to divide the Chicago region from their section of the state.

The GOP split revealed itself Friday when Bailey, Miller and 18 colleagues — including some from the suburbs — announced creation of the Illinois Taxpayer Freedom Caucus within the House GOP caucus.

“The Democrat party in Illinois is too unaccountable. The lack of a proper check on their influence has resulted in an agenda that is extreme, one-sided and renders vast regions of our state powerless,” the caucus group said in a joint statement.

Mooney said he believed it made “strategic sense for Republicans to at least push here if not go to the extreme” on reopening the state.

“But that’s the problem. You have the extremists who look irresponsible. They’re betting the public health people are wrong and they’re also betting that people are so fed up with it that they’re going to agree with this sort of thing,” he said. “Take masks. When you see a person without a mask, do you see this as a symbol of freedom or do you see it as a danger sign?”

Ironically, it was Bailey’s challenge to the governor’s ability to issue multiple emergency declarations, and the shutdown orders that ensued, that provided one GOP victory on Friday.

The U.S. Department of Justice under Attorney General William Barr filed a position statement in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Illinois that argued against the state’s attempt to move Bailey’s case to federal court.

But the Justice Department’s filing also said if the federal district court “declines to remand the case to Illinois circuit court, then it should find that the governor exceeded his authority when issuing the executive orders.”

Pritzker, the first-term governor, appeared to acknowledge the growing discontent over his phased Restore Illinois, making modifications to the next stage of his plan that the state is on track to meet in a week that would allow restaurants to serve outdoor patrons and have greater access to outdoor recreation.

But he’s also appeared to understand the political effects by using his weekday pandemic briefings to try to link Republican lawmakers to fringe anti-Semitic protesters, accusing the GOP of trying to suppress voting by opposing enhanced vote-by-mail, and contending back budget cuts on social services.

“I didn’t link Republican elected officials to Nazi demonstrators. They linked themselves,” Pritzker said Friday.

“There were elected officials that are in the Bank of Springfield building right now who are out there speaking in front of the crowds that were holding pictures of Hitler, swastikas, and they knew they were there. They were holding up signs that said, ‘Death to Tyrants’ and then they had other signs that depicted me and Hitler,” he said.

“So, I would say that the Republicans have tagged themselves. And for as long as they do not call out the elected officials of their own party, they are a part of the very problem that is existent in this country of allowing hatred and bigotry to perpetuate,” he said.

Pritzker’s comments came as lawmakers extended the special session into Saturday to try to come up with a budget plan.

The House on Friday approved a measure allowing the state to borrow up to $5 billion from the federal government to offset state revenue losses as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. The 71-45 vote cut largely along partisan lines.

The proposed borrowing is a key component of efforts to address a hole in the budget Pritzker’s office has estimated at least $6.2 billion. Funds borrowed from the U.S. Federal Reserve would be deposited into a new special emergency fund in the state treasury.

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