By Erick Johnson, Chicago Crusader
He’s an articulate and stylish political veteran whose charisma has kept him in office for over a decade.
Now, once again, State Rep. Ken Dunkin (5th) needs voters to help him keep his job. His opponent was once a little-known candidate hoping to take down a goliath in the Black community. Suddenly, Juliana Stratton is a big contender in a political race that’s now among the hottest this election season.
At first, Stratton was perhaps the cupcake candidate in her bid to unseat Dunkin, a political heavyweight who has served for 13 years. With growing opposition and a fast-approaching March 15 election, this race may be a difficult one for Dunkin to win and a surprising one for a political newcomer.
When Stratton entered the race last year, her chances of beating the veteran were slim, so were her campaign contributions, which initially drew several $1,000 and $500 donations. The amounts are considered small in the era of Super PACS and bloated campaign war chests.
After he made several controversial political moves, Dunkin is struggling to shake an image of being a “sellout,” who betrayed the Black community by aligning himself with a Republican governor. Some of Dunkin’s past donors have switched their support to Stratton’s campaign. Her donations have not only increased in numbers, but also in size. On Dec. 23, she received $25,000. Weeks later, the donations were in the six figures.
Dunkin responded on Feb. 1 with a record setting $500,000 donation from the Illinois for Growth and Opportunity, a Republican-backed organization. It’s an amount that could have dimmed Stratton’s hopes for unseating the controversial lawmaker.
It did not.
Days after Dunkin made headlines for his monstrous haul; dozens of community organizations and prominent Black leaders have come to Stratton’s defense and fattened her campaign war chest. The outpouring of support has set off an intense, high stakes political race that is raising eyebrows in the Black community. The donations have put Stratton within striking distance—at least in contributions—of her opponent. Politically, she’s also making gains on her opponent.
The biggest donor, AFSCME Illinois Council No. 31, gave Stratton $138,000 on Feb. 4, according to state campaign reports. A day earlier, the SEIU Healthcare Illinois Indiana PAC gave $111,000, nearly 12 times the $8,500 the organization gave to Dunkin when it was on good terms with the lawmaker. On the same day, the Chicago Regional Council of Carpenters lined Stratton’s coffers with $51,000.
In all, Stratton has a total of $389,287 in campaign contributions. The amount is likely to climb as more organizations and Black leaders attempt to oust Dunkin with big-name endorsements.
Before she took the spotlight, Stratton had been a part of Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle’s inner circle, serving as a top aide and director for the Center for Public Safety and Justice at UIC. She also serves as executive director of the Cook County Justice Advisory Council.
Stratton, a DePaul University Law School graduate, ran her own firm and worked as an administrative judge for the city of Chicago before joining the county. Despite her resume, Stratton has never held a public office.
On Feb. 4—the same day Stratton snagged the $138,000 contribution—she received endorsements from Preckwinkle; Secretary of State Jesse White; Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis; Father Michael Pfleger; and Aldermen Pat Dowell (3rd); Michelle Harris (8th) and Leslie Hairston (5th). Stratton also received endorsements from several union organizations.
Sources say House Speaker Mike Madigan also supports Stratton and wants Dunkin out of his House. Dunkin infuriated Madigan, numerous Democrats and many Black leaders in November, when he refused to vote on a bill that would have reversed Governor Bruce Rauner’s cuts to the state’s Child Care Assistance program. Responding to heavy criticism, Dunkin said the bill was unnecessary because he helped negotiate a compromise with Rauner.
In the Black community, Dunkin’s move was viewed as an act of betrayal. For months, Black lawmakers in Springfield and Chicago have battled Rauner’s proposed cuts that threatened to leave thousands of mothers without money to help them pay for critical daycare services while they worked to put food on the table.
As shocking as Dunkin’s move was, some Black lawmakers were not surprised. While Dunkin was portrayed in the Black Press as a heroic independent lawmaker, he has been widely criticized as an elected official who marches to the beat of his own drum. His district includes some of the most affluent parts of Chicago’s downtown and some of the poorest neighborhoods on the South Side, an area that heavily relies on social programs.
Since Rauner’s childcare cuts, health officials say 100 providers closed their doors and about 5,000 parents lost their jobs because they were unable to find affordable day care for their children.
In a survey, 70 percent of parents say the cuts affected their ability to pay rent and buy food. An estimated 10,000 children who were eligible before Rauner’s cuts, now remain shut out of program. Dunkin blames Madigan for the state’s budget impasse; Black leaders are angry that Dunkin did not stick with Democrats to help reverse the cuts when he had a chance.
On Feb. 7, healthcare leaders called on Rauner and Dunkin to withdraw television advertisement paid for by Illinoisans for Growth and Opportunity—the same Republican organization that dropped $500,000 in Dunkin’s war chest. Healthcare leaders accuse Dunkin and Rauner of misrepresenting facts and ignoring the state’s own figures showing 48,000 children in the programs.
In the television ad, Dunkin claims that he “restored childcare funding” to 100,000 children despite the cuts being in effect.
During his speech before lawmakers in Springfield, President Barack Obama gave Dunkin a vote of confidence when he praised him for working with Rauner as a way to end partisan bickering that has prolonged the budget crisis. Dunkin stood up and clapped and yelled “Yes!”
Doubts about Dunkin still linger. On Feb. 5–one day after Stratton made news by bagging several high-profile endorsements from angry Black leaders—Dunkin held a packed meeting in the conference room of the Chicago Defender’s office for members of the Black Press, including the Chicago Crusader. Accompanying Dunkin was Cory Jobe, director of the Illinois Office of Tourism and another official.
Dunkin, who chairs the Illinois House Tourism and Convention Committee, promised to funnel more state dollars for advertisements in Black newspapers, but when it came to details, Dunkin and Jobe were unable to give specifics about how much a piece of the pie was available and how Chicago’s Black Press could reap state tourism dollars. Perhaps, the biggest problem—as one press member pointed out—there is no money available because of the budget impasse.
To some, the spotty presentation and unanswered questions were an insult to a media that has often struggled for equality in obtaining advertising dollars.
With Dunkin’s image tanking in the media and elections just over a month away, some Blacks are left wondering if this was another desperate attempt by the veteran politician to buy favorable press coverage in the Black community. After all, when was the last time Dunkin held a press conference to try to steer tourism dollars to the Black media?