Aurora Mayor Richard Irvin Jumps into GOP Governor’s Race as Expensive Campaign Season Looms

It’s been nearly a year since candidates began announcing their intent to run for Illinois governor, but Monday brought a new entrant to shake up the race.

Aurora Mayor Richard Irvin declared he’s running as a Republican in an online video

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“I grew up in Section Eight public housing in Aurora, where I now serve as mayor. Mom had me at 16. A single mother working two jobs. Didn’t have much of a father, but my granddad, son of Richard Baxter Irvin, taught me to believe in myself, to do the best I could in whatever I did, like he did as a skilled craftsman in the factories after World War II,” Irvin says in the video. “I enlisted in the Army, like him. Served in Desert Storm, developed the discipline it takes to complete a mission.”

Irvin, the great-grandson of an enslaved man, went on to become a lawyer and prosecutor. In 2017, he became the first Black mayor of Illinois’ second largest city.

As his Martin Luther King Jr. Day campaign announcement points out, if he wins the primary, Irvin would be the first Black nominee for governor from either major party in Illinois.

Irvin was not made available to journalists and a campaign spokesperson said he will do interviews soon.

Despite the quiet rollout, Irvin is getting a lot of attention in part because he appears likely to gain the financial backing of Illinois’ richest man, Ken Griffin, founder of the Citadel hedge fund.

“Unlike the current governor who was born into wealth and has demonstrated little urgency or progress in improving our state, Richard Irvin’s life embodies the American Dream and a real commitment to making communities stronger,” Griffin said in a statement. “From humble beginnings, he put himself through college with the help of the GI bill and chose to enter public service to make a difference in the lives of others.”

Griffin helped fund the successful effort against Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s initiative to move Illinois to a graduated income tax system. At an Economic Club of Chicago event last October, Griffin came out strong against Pritzker’s time in office.

“It is a disgrace that our governor will not insert himself into the challenge of addressing crime in our city. It is a disgrace,” Griffin said. “He doesn’t care. So we have our work cut out for us because we have a government in our state that continually puts votes in front of people, votes in front of lives, votes in front of schools and we need to start to take our state back inch by inch from people that put their politics first and put our people second.”

Griffin’s statement did not explicitly say he will fund Irvin’s race. Other GOP candidates running for the nomination are state Sen. Darren Bailey, businessman Gary Rabine, former state senator and ex-Marine Paul Schimpf and venture capitalist Jesse Sullivan.

Griffin isn’t the only one likely to be opening up his wallet. In fact, Pritzker already has.

Four years ago, Pritzker, heir to the Hyatt fortune, spent $170 million dollars of his money to win his first elected office. He has so far put more than $130 million dollars into his campaign fund this election cycle, including $90 million dollars on Friday.

“The GOP primary field continues to grow but one thing stays the same: the people of Illinois do not want a repeat of the Bruce Rauner years of disastrous mismanagement and policies that set our state back,” a Pritzker spokesperson said in a statement. “The governor is focused on continuing to lead Illinois through these challenging times, building on his record of paying our bills on time and improving the state’s credit rating, investing in our roads, bridges and transportation infrastructure, and setting a national standard for action on climate that will bring down energy costs and create jobs.”

Other comments from Democrats and Republicans alike more directly attack Irvin, with criticism from unions and the abortion rights organization Personal PAC.

Some Black legislators also accused Irvin of co-opting Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

“On a day dedicated to service, equality and protection of those on the margins of society, the Republican party has shown their shallow opportunism takes no days off,” said Illinois Legislative Black Caucus chairs Robert Peters, Sonya Harper and Kam Buckner.  

Even before Irvin made his run official, the Democratic Governor’s Association put out a video showing Irvin in his mayoral capacity complimenting Pritzker.

The Illinois Republican Party does not endorse candidates in the primary, but in a statement chair Don Tracy proclaimed Irvin as a full-fledged member.

“Mayor Richard Irvin is a Republican, and I welcome any Republican who wants to join our already stellar field of GOP gubernatorial candidates,” Tracy said in the statement. “I urge all Republicans to adopt Ronald Reagan’s famous 11th commandment and to focus their fire on Governor J.B. Pritzker. Don’t be distracted by lies from the Democratic Governors Association, Pritzker, and their allies who might try to influence the GOP primary. I’m confident we’ll have a spirited primary of ideas, backgrounds and plans for the future, that GOP primary voters will nominate the best candidate to defeat Pritzker, and that after the primary Republicans will unite around our nominee.”

Republicans have been struggling to gain their footing in Illinois statewide politics, especially after former governor Bruce Rauner lost to Pritzker four years ago.

There’s also tension between the right and moderate wings of the party, and leaders of the latter camp fear that if a conservative makes it out of the primary he’ll be trounced by Pritzker in the general election.

Former House Republican leader Tom Cross of Oswego is a co-chair of Irvin’s campaign. He said that Irvin has crossover appeal that will appeal to Republicans and a broader audience.

“If you want to talk economics, you want to talk taxes, you want to talk balanced budgets that’s a column it that’s going to be strong for Richard. If you want to talk about crime that’s gonna be a column that’s very, very strong for Richard,” Cross said. “I think he’s, along with his running mate (state Rep. Avery Bourne, R-Morrisonville) they’re right on the issues and I would argue the beginning of the revitalization and the resurgence of this party.”

Irvin appears to be running at the top of a slate with other Republicans vying for statewide office, with lawyer Steve Kim running for attorney general, former U.S. Attorney for Central Illinois John Milhiser for secretary of state, state Rep. Tom Demmer for treasurer and McHenry County Auditor Shannon Teresi for comptroller.

There is a GOP contest for the secretary of state nomination, with state Rep. Dan Brady of Bloomington also running.

It’s an open seat given that longtime incumbent Jesse White, a Democrat, isn’t running again. That’s lead to a battle for the Democratic nomination between former state treasurer Alexi Giannoulias, Chicago Ald. David Moore (17th Ward) and Chicago City Clerk Anna Valencia. 

Follow Amanda Vinicky on Twitter: @AmandaVinicky

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