Democrats gathered in Springfield Thursday as speakers talked of a "blue wave" that could have voters this fall put more Democrats in office up and down the ballot.
"2018 is the most important election of our lifetimes because everything we care about is under siege," J.B. Pritzker, the Democratic candidate for governor, told thousands of guests at the Crowne Plaza in Springfield for a brunch put on by the Illinois Democratic County Chairs' Association. The event in recent decades has become the kickoff to the Illinois State Fair's Democrat Day.
"There are pundits that say we can't compete in places like Grundy County or ... Schuyler County, or in Johnson County. They say they're too Republican. ... The pundits are wrong. I say, not only are we going to compete, but we're going to turn them blue."
U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, a Springfield Democrat, told reporters after a morning of speeches that the focus is not just on converting some people from Republican to Democrat but getting people to the polls who "share our values" but have not been participating.
Durbin said the GOP nationally has "focused on suppressing the vote. The Democrats have exactly the opposite point of view. We want every legal vote to count. If we expand the electorate, we feel that our values will prevail."
Durbin said new voters could include working people -- particularly working mothers -- and those in the millennial generation.
"They are on our side overwhelmingly," Durbin said of young adults. "But they have to hear from us that we care for them and we care for their values."
House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, who also chairs the Democratic Party of Illinois, told the crowd that Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner held state government "hostage" for more than two years to promote anti-union ideas like promoting right-to-work areas and attacking both public-sector collective bargaining and paying prevailing wage on public projects.
"Had it happened, there would have been a reduction in wages for working people and a reduction in the standard of living," Madigan said.
Under Rauner, the state went more than two years without a budget. Rauner said he wanted business-friendly changes, including a reduction in union strength, as part of any budget package. The General Assembly ended the impasse last summer, as some Republicans joined Democrats in passing a budget including an income-tax increase and overriding Rauner's veto. Rauner has decried the increase and said it should be rolled back, but money from that tax also removed immediate threats the state would go into junk bond status.
State Sen. Kwame Raoul of Chicago, candidate for attorney general, said Democratic attorneys general across the country have been the ones "stepping up" to work to block actions of President Donald Trump's administration as it enacts polices that are "stepping away from protecting the American people."
"Who we elect as attorney general ... matters more than it ever has mattered in history," he said.
Raoul said that being the son of Haitian immigrants helped drive home to him the impact of the administration's now-stopped policy of removing children from their parents as they crossed the border illegally.
More than 3,000 tickets were sold for the brunch, which was to feature former Vice President Joe Biden, and the usual tables in the first floor hall were replaced by rows of chairs to make room for the large crowd. Tables and remote video screens were also set up on the second floor for the overflow crowd.
Durbin told the crowd that Biden was more disappointed than anyone that a bad case of laryngitis kept him from coming to what Durbin called the largest gathering of Democrats in the state.
Replacing Biden as the keynoter was South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg. He served in Afghanistan when he was in the Navy Reserve, and in 2017, ran to be Democratic National Committee chair.
Buttigieg, 36, characterized Trump as "basically a disgraced game-show host" and said the state of the nation is like "those weird dreams" brought on by eating the wrong thing before going to sleep.
He said government policies are personal for him, as he is married to the love of his life -- a man -- and he knows some in power would deny his family the right to exist.
But he also said he is "energized and optimistic."
"There has never been such excitement and such potential for our party and our country," Buttigieg said.
Above the hotel, an airplane was towing a banner with a message including the names Pritzker and Madigan with a heart between them, and a link to a Rauner campaign website, www.pritzkermadigan.com.
Rauner's campaign has said Pritzker, if elected, would do Madigan's bidding.
"I've been an independent leader my whole life," Pritzker told reporters, listing as accomplishments founding a business incubator in Chicago, leading the building of the Illinois Holocaust Museum and and Education Center in Skokie, and helping support a center on wrongful convictions.
"These are things that I led and brought people together to accomplish," Pritzker said. "And when I go to Springfield, I'm not going to stop being an independent leader."
A day earlier, on Governor's Day, Rauner and other Republicans accused Pritzker of being corrupt for having money in offshore accounts and getting a tax break after toilets were disconnected in a mansion he owns in Chicago.
"The attacks coming from the Republicans are all that they've got," Pritzker said. "They unfortunately have run (this state) so badly ... over the last 3 1/2 years that the only way they think they can win elections in 2018 is by tearing down the other party. The fact is that we're a party that stands up for working families. ... I'm a candidate that's fighting for principles -- preserving a woman's right to choose, making sure that we are ending or diminishing gun violence across the state of Illinois, and that we're raising wages and creating jobs, and of course, that we're expanding health care. ... I think it's disgusting when the Republican Party resorts to personal attacks on people, whether it's me or anybody else."