DECATUR — Hours after former President Barack Obama delivered a blistering speech in Urbana attacking the White House and Washington Republicans, prominent Illinois Democrats including Chicago billionaire and gubernatorial candidate J.B. Pritzker and U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin continued the attack at Richland Community College on Friday night.
Obama "extolled the virtues of standing up for our democracy and challenging a president who is off the rails and a lot of Republicans who are silent in the face of that," Pritzker said at the seventh annual Penny Severns Memorial Reception.
The event, presented by the Jefferson Jackson Club and Macon County Democratic Central Committee, honors the legacy of Severns, a Decatur native who spent a dozen years as an Illinois state senator and in 1994 ran for lieutenant governor on the ticket with gubernatorial candidate Dawn Clark Netsch. Known as a high-energy and dogged lawmaker, she died of breast cancer in 1998. She was 46.
Durbin said he met Severns in 1974 when she was a student campaigning for Paul Simon, then running for the U.S. House, in Carbondale.
"I watched her with amazement in her public career," the senator said. "When you think back at a time when there were darn few women in government, we had Dawn Netsch and Penny Severns running to represent our state. They were going to make history, and they made history in my mind."
The annual dinner presented two Decatur-area political figures with the 2018 Penny Severns Integrity Award — former state Rep. Julie Curry and former Decatur Mayor Michael T. Carrigan, president of the Illinois AFL-CIO.
Also attending were Betsy Dirksen Londrigan, the Springfield Democrat challenging U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis in the 13th Congressional District; state Treasurer Mike Frerichs; state Comptroller Susana Mendoza; and state Sen. Kwame Raoul, who is running for attorney general. Various local lawmakers and political candidates also were in attendance.
Pritzker's speech came a few hours after he joined Obama in a surprise appearance at Caffe Paradiso in Urbana, following the president's speech at the University of Illinois. Obama in the speech gave his most forceful rebuke of President Donald Trump since leaving the White House. He also called the GOP “radical” in using fear to hold power.
“It’s not conservative. It sure isn’t normal. It’s radical. It’s a vision that says the protection of our power and those who back us is all that matters, even when it hurts the country,” he said. “It’s a vision that says the few who can afford high-priced lobbyists and unlimited campaign contributions set the agenda and over the past two years, this vision is now nearing its logical conclusion.”
Davis attended the Urbana speech with his daughter, a college senior, and issued a statement Friday that said: "While I could focus on the areas in his speech where I disagreed or make my own criticisms of the other side, I believe it’s better for our country and for students to hear about where Democrats and Republicans have worked together."
Durbin later told the Decatur crowd about Obama, "I'll tell you what, I breathed a sigh of relief when I looked up and saw that man come up on the stage. He's reminder of what a president can be and what a president should be."
Obama, a former member of the Illinois General Assembly, endorsed Pritzker in the gubernatorial race earlier this year. The contest between two men with enormous personal fortunes has shattered fundraising records for any statewide contest in the country. So far, GOP Gov. Bruce Rauner has given $57 million to his own campaign, while Pritzker has given $126 million to his campaign and even more to down-ballot Democrats in Illinois.
An August NBC News/Marist poll found Pritzker with 46 percent support, compared to 30 percent for Rauner, with another 13 percent undecided.
But locally, it's unclear what level of enthusiasm Democrats have in Macon County in 2018 and whether Trump's low national approval rating reflects voters locally.
Londrigan said she learned Friday that Democratic organizers had registered more voters than any other district.
"As of last week, the National Republican Congressional Committee added my opponent, Rodney Davis, to their incumbent protection program," Londrigan said. "I think that means we're doing something right."
The 13th District race may be the greatest test for Macon County Democrats in November. Davis, the Taylorville Republican, outperformed Trump in 2016, winning 66 percent of the county against Democrat Mark Wicklund, who enjoyed little campaign support from his own party.
The Cook Political Report, which tracks congressional races, still rates Davis as the slight favorite in the 13th district.
For a county that favored Michael Dukakis, Bill Clinton and Al Gore in past presidential elections, Macon has broken Republican since 2012, when Mitt Romney, carried the county over Obama by almost 3,000 votes. In 2016, Trump beat Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton handily by more than 8,000 votes, or 18 percentage points.
"We Democrats are working together, we're united," Pritzker said. "Unlike the Republican Party, which is so divided."