CHICAGO — Turn on any TV in Illinois and you’ll see ads from a slew of candidates for state attorney general who are vowing to battle a notorious tyrant, a racist fear-monger whom they view as a threat to democracy itself.
They’re talking about Donald Trump.
In the state’s first primary election of the Trump era, the president has turned the race to be Illinois’ top lawyer upside down, with the traditional focus on consumer protection, law enforcement and legislation taking a backseat to promises to fight tooth-and-nail against Trump.
The eight Democrats running for the party nomination in this solidly Democratic state have tapped Trump as the boogeyman in campaign material, debates and TV ads, promising to serve as the tip of the spear in a war against the White House.
“Sharon Fairley’s been taking on bullies and bigots her whole life,” says a narrator in one typical ad featuring Trump’s photo, “so she’ll stand up to Trump’s attacks on women, immigrants and people of color.”
In laying out his own case for the job, former federal prosecutor Renato Mariotti — who doubles as a cable news pundit on the subject of Trump — has framed his candidacy as a way to “stop Donald Trump in his tracks.”
“When he tries to undermine our health care or roll back environmental standards, my answer as attorney general will be: ‘See you in court, Mr. President,” Mariotti said in a video launching his bid. “If you’re angry as I am about a president who is disgracing our nation, please join our campaign for attorney general.”
Fairley, like several of her competitors, weaves her personal narrative into the Trump opposition, saying she takes issue with Trump’s criticisms of affirmative action. The policy, she says, may have factored into her acceptance into Princeton, but she notes she graduated magna cum laude with a degree in mechanical and aerospace engineering.
“I’m amongst the millions of people, women in particular, who have been demoralized by the policies of the Trump White House,” said Fairley, who is African-American and recently stepped down as the head of Chicago’s Civilian Office of Police Accountability. “So his comments on affirmative action? That’s personal to me. The racism? That’s personal to me.”
Her rivals make similar pitches. Nancy Rotering, the mayor of a Chicago suburb, blasts the president’s policies on guns and immigration and draws parallels to her own local gun-policy battles. Former CEO of Chicago Public Schools Jesse Ruiz says his motivation is rooted in his experience as the son of Mexican immigrants.
“I’ll fight corruption and abuse no matter where it comes from, even from Donald Trump,” he says in one ad.
While the Trump factor might have inspired the crowded Democratic field, a major driving force was pure opportunity. The job opened up after Attorney General Lisa Madigan last year announced she would retire after having a lock on the office for nearly 16 years.
That released an explosion of pent-up ambition from a wide range of contenders: former federal prosecutors, state lawmakers, imprisoned ex-Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s defense lawyer, a national TV commentator and, perhaps most surprising, a former Illinois governor.
On the Republican side, the field is dramatically smaller and less Trump-focused — it consists of former Miss America and Harvard Law school graduate Erika Harold, who has significant party support, and Gary Grasso, a litigator and DuPage County Board member.
The chance to take on Trump in court is part of the reason Pat Quinn, who served as governor from 2009 to 2015, doesn’t view his candidacy as a step down.
Quinn, a Democrat who had a rough relationship with the party establishment as governor, called the attorney general’s post “the last line of defense for democracy. That’s definitely a powerful factor for me.”
Democrats competing in Tuesday’s primary also see the race as a chance to seize some of the national spotlight by bringing Illinois in line with other states in which the top legal officer has used the Trump resistance to catapult into prominence — California’s Attorney General Xavier Becerra and New York’s Eric Schneiderman are models.
Fairley said she wants to see Illinois “driving the bus” nationally on more legal challenges to the White House, including on the environment.
Aaron Goldstein, a former Cook County public defender and Blagojevich’s trial lawyer, said he sees the position as a place to “resist tyranny.”
“He’s destroying our values, he’s destroying the Constitution. We’ve realized we can’t trust the legislature federally. It’s an individual in the attorney general’s office who can actually go into court and fight on behalf of all of us,” Goldstein said. “Lisa Madigan has done some of that, but, in my humble opinion, she’s been cautious. If I’m in office, I’m screaming from the rooftops every single day.”
Still, this is Illinois, which has its own fiercely parochial brand of politics and is struggling to emerge from decades of iron-fisted party-boss control.
Democrats are hellbent on keeping control of the attorney general’s office, which party leaders see as a line of defense against a Republican threat much closer to home: Gov. Bruce Rauner, who they say devastated the state’s social service infrastructure and has leveled relentless attacks on unions.
“It wasn’t necessary to look at what Trump is doing. We’ve got our own Trump in Bruce Rauner,” state Sen. Kwame Raoul said of entering the AG contest.
Raoul and Quinn are polling as front-runners.
But a late $1 million infusion to the campaign of state Rep. Scott Drury has the former federal prosecutor looming as a dark horse in the final days of the race. For Drury, the campaign is about taking on the local power structure, not Trump — specifically, House Speaker and Illinois Democratic Party Chairman Mike Madigan.
Madigan is “probably a bigger bully than Trump,” said Drury, who’s been entrenched in a personal grudge match with Madigan for years. “Look, Madigan’s been around for 40 years; no one’s willing to go against him. I’m not giving Trump any credit. He doesn’t have good qualities, but when you look at the way Madigan has run the House, you can say Trump is just trying to emulate Madigan.”
But even Drury can’t get away from the president’s shadow. In an ad funded by Fight Back for a Better Tomorrow — a political action committee whose donors are close allies of Madigan — Drury’s Democratic credentials are questioned, amid claims he “took thousands from Trump’s own donors.”
“Drury. He takes Republican money and votes with them,” the ad concludes, with a photo of Drury juxtaposed next to Trump and Rauner. “The last thing we need as attorney general.”