SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (WCIA) -- In a political maneuver designed to demonstrate his pro-choice bona fides, Democrat J.B. Pritzker staked out a position half a step to the left of incumbent Governor Bruce Rauner on the controversial issue of abortion during a press conference on Monday.
Rauner paid a steep political price, including nearly losing a primary election to a lesser known conservative challenger, for signing a law to expand abortion protections in the state last fall. Pritzker said while he appreciates the governor's signature on the bill, it's not enough to win pro-choice voters in November.
"First of all, [Rauner] hemmed and hawed," Pritzker said when asked why the pledge was necessary. "He lied about it while he was doing it. He said he wasn’t for it, then he said he was for it. Yeah, he signed it. But then shortly after, he went on radio and extolled the virtues of having stood up -- as he did -- for right-to-life candidates, for people who are anti-choice. So which way is it? Are you for a woman’s right to choose or not? And I think it should be easy for him to sign his pledge."
Rauner's campaign refused to engage in the back-and-forth on the issue that has, for them, proven a political minefield. Many of the governor's own staff members oppose abortion, and shy away from discussing the matter on the record. State legislators in the social conservative wing still hold lasting grudges with a governor who, according to them, leaves little space between his views on abortion and the Democrat running to replace him.
"If there is no daylight between us, then he should have no problem signing this pledge," Pritzker taunted. "The fact is that he has been on both sides of this issue. He should simply stand up and prove what he really believes."
Republicans have sponsored three different bills aimed at rolling back portions of the abortion law in the state legislature, but Democrats who control majorities in both chambers have not allowed any of the proposals to be called for a vote at the committee level, let alone the full House or Senate floor. It's unlikely those proposals would ever reach the governor's desk under the current makeup of the General Assembly.
"I pledge that I will not sign any legislation that repeals, modifies, or in any way diminishes HB 40," the statement reads. Crafted by Personal PAC, a pro-choice group, the pledge asks candidates to vow they "support HB 40 100% and pledge to continue to support HB 40 as the law of the state of Illinois for my entire term as Governor."
Pritzker signed the statement at the AFL-CIO headquarters in Springfield on Monday afternoon in front of a room full of supporters, including Heather Steans, a Democratic state senator from Chicago's North Shore.
Pro-life conservative lawmakers took offense at the timing of Pritzker's political message which was delivered the day after Mother's Day.
"I think JB [Pritzker] couldn’t care less about mothers or Mother’s Day," said Barb Wheeler, a Republican state representative from McHenry County. "I think Rauner’s press conference [on gun control and the death penalty] was a huge success for Rauner in reaching his base. JB bunted back by reminding conservatives [Rauner] is pro abortion and, on that issue, he chose to turn his back on his caucus and his party."
"I believe that every single day is a day to stand up for women’s rights," Pritzker responded. "Whether it is the day after Mother’s Day, Mother’s Day, or every other day of the year."
Wheeler, a mother who opposed Rauner's move to sign the controversial abortion measure, still supports the Republican incumbent for re-election despite disagreements over abortion policy. In her response, Wheeler predicted part of Pritzker's "brilliant campaign strategy" was to never let conservatives forget how he betrayed them. "Apparently, neither will Team [Jeanne] Ives," Wheeler said, "which in Rauner's defense, truly makes her 'Madigan's favorite Republican.'"
Ives ran a vigorous primary challenge against Rauner after the governor signed the abortion bill into law. She and a few GOP holdouts are clinging to hope they can oust Rauner's pick for Republican chairman during an internal party battle later this week.
After Ives entered the primary race, a Democrat who helped craft the abortion bill last year gloated about its effectiveness in splintering the Republican party.
"Someone should teach Jeanne Ives the concept of divide and conquer," the elected official boasted, who asked not to be named.
"The Republican Party is completely divided," Pritzker said on Monday after receiving the endorsement of state senator Daniel Biss, his own primary foe. "I don’t know when it is that the governor is going to start talking to other people and his party and actually get his people together, but it seems like they cannot get it together."