Religion and labor key in Illinois Senate race

In the past week, state Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias (D) has collected endorsements from several major unions, including the Illinois Federation of Teachers and the state branch of the AFL-CIO, which came out for him Tuesday in the Illinois Senate Democratic primary.

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“That doesn’t rattle me at all,” said Jackson, the former head of the Chicago Urban League. “The state treasurer is the establishment candidate, so it’s not a surprise that unions would endorse there.”

At the grassroots level, Jackson said she has the support of churchgoing union members. “Union households are my base,” she said. “They know me, and they know my work and they, more times than not, are members of the churches of the pastors that I’m working with. So I’m not rattled.”

But until the Feb. 2 vote, she said, “It’s safe to say I will be in the house of the Lord every Sunday.”

Meanwhile, Giannoulias’s campaign touted its latest endorsement.

“It’s really big news,” said Tom Bowen, Giannoulias’s campaign manager. “It looks like labor is speaking with one voice, and that’s a rare thing in Illinois Democratic contested primaries.”

Bowen said he expected the union endorsements to translate into help getting Democrats to the polls in February.

“I think in a low-turnout primary — don’t forget, this is going to be one of the coldest times in Chicago — Democratic organizations matter, and to date, no other candidate has received any support from working families,” he said.

On Nov. 30, Jackson announced the support of close to a dozen African-American clergymen in Chicago.

“Those ministers that endorsed me, they represent every major denomination. So easily that was a combined congregation of about a couple hundred thousand,” she said.

Having the backing of church leaders is helpful, said an Illinois Democratic strategist, who asked for anonymity to speak candidly about the race.

“It’s a way to communicate with the African-American community, but you have to have the big congregations.”

State Sen. James Meeks (D) has endorsed Jackson and his Salem Baptist Church in Chicago boasts some 24,000 followers. Meeks is also involved with the RainbowPUSH Coalition, which is headed by the Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr.

Jackson said she hasn’t yet “reached out” to Jesse Jackson, but called him a “leader in the community.” She added, “I am interested in talking to him.”

While Jackson reaches out to the clergy, she’s also honing a message that may not resonate with some of those in the pews. She’s been campaigning against Rep. Bart Stupak’s (D-Mich.) amendment to the House version of the healthcare bill, which prohibited federal money from funding abortions.

“Women are outraged by [the Stupak amendment]. It is a very insidious way to roll back the clock,” she said. “Reproductive justice is what we’re talking about. A lot of women don’t understand what’s at stake with the Stupak amendment.”

Jackson’s stance on women’s health issues is partly what earned her the backing of EMILY’s List, which is helping her with voter outreach and fundraising, she said.

Observers are skeptical that she’ll be able to overtake Giannoulias or David Hoffman (D), the former inspector general of Chicago, in the primary.

“I don’t see Cheryle Jackson gaining traction,” one Democratic strategist said.

Meanwhile, Hoffman will need to put up strong fundraising numbers to compete with Giannoulias during a post-holiday sprint to the finish. “If [Hoffman] looks like he’s going to have a serious media budget, that may offset [the union endorsements],” the strategist said. “If not, that pretty well opens the door for Alexi.”

The AFL-CIO and other endorsements come at a time when Giannoulias is trying hard to present himself as pro-worker. His first campaign TV commercial featured laudatory statements from workers at a Hartmarx Corp. clothing factory.

Still, Jackson maintained she is the only candidate with experience in “the trenches.”

“I’m the only candidate solving everyday people’s problems. I’m the only non-millionaire and non-self-funder,” she said. “I’m running against two attorneys, a banker and a doctor. I think that shows the contrast — why I’m so different from my opponents.”

But drawing contrasts with her opponents isn’t her focus, Jackson said.

“I’m not focused on Hoffman. I’m not focused on the state treasurer. My only focus is getting out there and talking to people,” she said.

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