Firefighter runs to left of 'traditional' Democrat in primary race to face Stephens

  • Michelle Darbro

    Michelle Darbro

  • R. Cary Capparelli

    R. Cary Capparelli

Updated 2/11/2020 6:04 PM

A Chicago firefighter and first-time candidate backed by Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan is challenging a self-identified moderate-conservative Democrat who's a perennial candidate with a well-known last name.

Michelle Darbro is running to the left of R. Cary Capparelli in the Democratic primary for the 20th state House district -- a union-heavy area that is centered on Chicago's Northwest Side but also stretches into Rosemont, Des Plaines, Park Ridge, Niles and Schiller Park.


It was a seat held by Capparelli's father, Ralph, for more than three decades, until the district was redrawn and he lost to fellow incumbent Michael McAuliffe in 2004.

McAuliffe, the lone Republican state legislator from Chicago, stepped down last year and with other GOP committeemen, helped appoint Rosemont Mayor Brad Stephens to the seat. Committeemen said Stephens was the best chance for Republicans to hold onto the seat in 2020.

But before either Capparelli or Darbro face Stephens in the general election, the two Chicago residents are competing for the Democratic nomination in the March 17 primary, arguing why they'd be the best candidate to take on Stephens.

"I'm not a modern-day Democrat. I'm a traditional Democrat," Capparelli said during a recent interview with the Daily Herald Editorial Board. "And I think a moderate Republican and traditional Democrat are very much the same. And I think those are political ideologies that represent the district pretty well."

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Capparelli ran as a Republican in 2018 and 2014 for the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District board of commissioners, and as a Democrat for the same board in 2016. He ran as a Democrat against Cook County Commissioner Peter Silvestri -- another Stephens ally -- in 2010.

But he says his ideology has never changed, and he's never been a "party candidate." He admits reaching out to Madigan lieutenants last spring, but says he was told the party wasn't supporting a candidate.

Since Darbro entered the race in December, she's received $52,000 from a Madigan-controlled campaign committee and $90,000 from other Democratic state legislators, according to recent campaign disclosure filings. She also recorded $10,000 in donations from teachers unions, and has endorsements from a number of other unions.

Capparelli said he expects to raise from $10,000 to $25,000 to fund his campaign.

Darbro says her support from unions gives her the best chance to beat Stephens in November, and she doesn't think Capparelli's views align with the party.


"I believe I hold more Democratic views than he does," she said. "And I believe that I am more in touch with residents here, and I would be looking out for them, instead of just looking out for myself."

Capparelli supports changes to pension plans that he admits won't be popular with unions. He also favors the current flat state income tax system, and term limits of six years for state legislators.

Darbro said pension reform must find solutions that work for all parties, believes the current tax system hurts the middle class, and would be open to a discussion on term limits, so long as there are safeguards to limit the power of lobbyists.

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