State Sen. Kirk Dillard picked up the biggest labor endorsement thus far in the Republican race for governor, with the state's largest teachers union backing him on Friday.
Dillard is touting an Illinois Education Association endorsement that puts him directly at odds with Winnetka businessman and perceived GOP gubernatorial primary front-runner Bruce Rauner.
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"The Republican Party has one man in this race who demonizes working people and members of organized labor," Dillard, a Hinsdale Republican, said of Rauner. "The Republican Party is not some exclusive club for people that wear neck ties."
With a month to go in the hotly contested March 18 primary election for Illinois governor, the potential political power of public employee unions is on full display.
On the GOP side, labor leaders have been contributing money toward TV ads that attack Rauner but don't vocally favor Dillard or their two other opponents, state Sen. Bill Brady of Bloomington or Illinois Treasurer Dan Rutherford of Chenoa.
And for Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn, his war over cutting teachers' and state workers' pensions put him at odds with a base of support that tends to back Democrats.
Dillard last year voted against the controversial law that would save Illinois billions of dollars at the expense of teachers' pension benefits, though he voted for a similar version months before.
The IEA has 133,000 members and carries significant political sway in Illinois. It backed Dillard in his 2010 run for governor and his 2012 re-election to the Illinois Senate.
The union is a leading contributor of campaign cash in Illinois, so its backing of Dillard could be the windfall of money his campaign has desperately lacked in the past months as Rauner has taken to TV to spread his brand.
Rauner has run a campaign and a swath of media ads criticizing "government union bosses" and attacking Dillard for taking IEA money in previous campaigns.
"Probably a third, maybe more, of the Republicans in Springfield have sold out to the government union bosses," Rauner told the Daily Herald editorial board last week
The IEA gave Dillard $250,000 in 2010, but he will need far more to catch up to the millions of dollars Rauner has already spent in this campaign.
IEA President Cinda Klickna said the union doesn't yet know what kind of cash backing will come with the endorsement but said IEA members live in nearly every community in the state and are active campaigners.
"I have heard from many of our members, both Democrats and independents, who have said this is such a crucial election, it is about public education, and we are going to be taking a Republican ballot," Klickna said.
On Thursday, the IEA, Illinois Federation of Teachers, and Service Employees International Union gave $1.25 million to the Illinois Freedom Fund, a political committee that's been running TV ads trying to tie Rauner to Stuart Levine, a star witness in the trial of former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich. Rauner says he's never met Levine.
The state's largest employee union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, gave the fund $500,000 last week.
Union leaders have feuded with Quinn for years over pension cuts, and Klickna didn't commit to backing either Quinn or the Republican primary winner in November.
Quinn still has much of the state's union support, but absent from his most recent campaign reports are donations from the AFL-CIO and AFSCME.
When Quinn took to the Illinois State Fair stage in 2012, in the midst of the pension battle, AFSCME workers booed him loudly, and unions are fighting the pension law hard in court.
Union backing isn't a clear win for Dillard, as it's likely to be divisive among conservative voters. Before Dillard was done speaking at his news conference Friday morning, the conservative Americans for Prosperity committee released a statement slamming the IEA and Dillard.
"This organization is hostile to policies that promote greater economic freedom by letting taxpayers keep more of their money, while also working against more parental choice in their children's education," said David From, the group's Illinois director.