In his bid for the Republican nomination for governor, Richard Irvin has been plagued by inconsistencies between his past actions as Aurora mayor and his statements since hitting the stump.
From his views about mandates imposed during the pandemic, Black Lives Matter and gun control to his personal voting history and his opinions about Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker and Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, Mayor Irvin often finds himself in conflict with GOP candidate for governor Irvin.
“Every little thing that this guy did and said is going to be picked apart,” said Christopher Mooney, a political scientist at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “It’s going to matter in the primary because he’s a human being and you’re going to find out who this human being is, and if it’s at odds with the story (his campaign) manufactured, that’s going to be a problem.”
For his part, Irvin denies any disparities in his positions.
“I think I’m consistent the whole time, whether mayor or a candidate running for governor,” Irvin said at a campaign meet-and-greet in west suburban Elmhurst on Saturday.
Irvin’s candidacy is being brought to voters by the same team that took wealthy Republican private equity investor Bruce Rauner from near political obscurity to the Governor’s Mansion in 2014. Rauner defeated a weakened Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn as the first-time Republican candidate was presented to the public as a blank slate. He also stuck to a tight script to avoid alienating voters.
Once he got into office, however, Rauner’s single term was marred by an inability to govern. He failed to understand the complexities of the position and instead focused on seeking to abolish union rights, which led to a two-year budget impasse. His political support in the Republican Party weakened when he signed a bill allowing for taxpayer-funded abortions.
This time, the old Rauner team is backing a candidate who does have a record as an elected official — from Irvin’s previous failed bids for mayor, his election as an at-large alderman and his first mayoral victory five years ago.
But to win the GOP primary for governor, Irvin’s campaign staff is keeping him to a tight script with little public or media interaction and few direct answers to questions about Republican politics or issues of the day. Instead, Irvin and his team have attempted to rewrite or obfuscate his past by trying to bulldoze past it and saying they are focused on the future.
In some cases, Irvin’s pre- and post-governor-candidate positions are reminiscent of the criticism Democratic presidential contender John Kerry faced of flip-flopping in his 2004 loss to Republican George W. Bush. When Kerry was asked about supporting aid for military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, he said, “I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it.”
Irvin has criticized Pritzker’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and the governor’s mitigation orders, such as wearing masks or getting vaccinated. “I’ve always been opposed to mandates,” the governor candidate told a Downstate radio station in February, shortly after he announced his candidacy.
But before he was against it, he was for it.
Under Irvin, the city of Aurora mandated vaccinations or weekly testing of municipal workers, implored Aurora residents to wear masks, and warned businesses they could face fines for not following masking requirements. Irvin said of Pritzker’s March 2020 stay-at-home order in a Facebook post, “I fully support his decision and encourage all Aurorans to abide by this new mandate.”
In his statement, Irvin said he had “spoken” with Pritzker “during this challenging period” and said that “based on the science and the experts,” a shelter-in-place mandate “certainly is the most logical one.”
But on Saturday, Irvin said his discussion was with Pritzker’s staff “because he wouldn’t answer my calls.” He said his support for Pritzker’s mitigation efforts eroded over time as it hurt his local business community and people learned more about how to deal with COVID-19.
“I think we were all scared wondering what our future was going to be, hoping there’s be some brighter day because we had this new novel disease that was killing people across this world,” he said.
“We wanted to believe in our leader, but we saw our leader failed us as we got ahold of this and heard more information about what it does and how we were going to protect ourselves,” he said, adding that mitigations should have been a matter of local control and that members of the General Assembly should have been part of the order-making process.
In his campaign advertising, Irvin has made attacking crime a constant theme, citing his past experience as a former Cook County and Kane County assistant prosecutor.
But at a meet-and-greet in La Grange, where Irvin recounted his background in a lengthy and often repetitive 25-minute speech, he jumped from his work as a prosecutor to becoming mayor. He did not mention that in between he spent 15 years as a criminal defense attorney.
In his campaign, Irvin also has emphasized the need to “back the blue” in fighting crime. But Irvin has contended his own police department was “actually incorrect” in stating that he said “charges would be taken care of” when he arrived at the scene of the arrest of his then-girlfriend for battery at a marijuana dispensary in May of last year.
Irvin told the Tribune and the Aurora Beacon-News that while he may have said the “charges would be taken care of,” as the report stated, he was assuring the woman she would get an attorney and the matter would be handled in court.
Irvin’s rivals also have sought to question his fidelity to law enforcement by using the mayor’s comments in a reelection questionnaire from March of last year in which he was asked his view of Black Lives Matter.
“I support Black Lives Matter strongly and passionately. I am supportive and proud of the peaceful demonstration throughout this past summer in response to the murder of George Floyd, Jacob Blake, Breonna Taylor and many others,” he told Patch. “Politics, especially racial politics, are rarely easy but I believe this past summer was a wake-up call to America.”
But when questioned about it by a voter at a recent event, Irvin said he was not referring to the formal Black Lives Matter organization, a group that advocates against police brutality and for judicial fairness and has had conflicts with law enforcement organizations.
“I think we all agree that Black people’s lives matter,” he said. “I’m talking about Black people’s lives. And you’ve often heard me say, and I say it time and time again, all lives matter. Black, white, Latino, Indian, Asian.”
As Irvin has defended himself on law enforcement issues, he’s also had to reconcile his position on gun control.
In February 2019, he was mayor of Aurora when a disgruntled former employee of the Henry Pratt Co. in Aurora opened fire on employees, killing five people and wounding five police officers before law enforcement killed the gunman. Later that summer, Irvin joined with mayors across the country in signing a letter from the United States Conference of Mayors urging immediate action from the federal government on gun safety legislation.
“Whether it is a horrific mass shooting or a teenager with easy access to guns, we know all too well the impact of gun violence in our community,” Irvin said. “If we are truly serious about preventing one more family or another community from experiencing yet another gun tragedy, we need Congress to enact common sense gun safety legislation immediately.”
But more than two years after the Pratt shootings, Irvin as a candidate for governor said he is a “supporter of the Second Amendment” and “attacking law-abiding gun owners isn’t the answer.”
“We should be doing more to crack down on the trafficking of illegal guns — and that’s going to require close coordination between federal, state and local law enforcement,” he told the Champaign News-Gazette.
Gun control has also become an issue for Irvin’s top political benefactor. A WBEZ analysis found nearly 1 out of every 4 guns recovered from Chicago homicides since 2017 came off assembly lines of firearm manufacturers that are part of the stock portfolio of Citadel, the firm founded by Ken Griffin. Griffin, who has feuded with Pritzker over city crime, has given Irvin’s campaign for governor $45 million.
On Saturday, when asked about signing the mayors’ letter advocating for federal action on gun safety, Irvin denied it.
“No, I believe if you look back at the record correctly, I talked about what we needed to do to clean up our state FOID system because our system is broken,” Irvin said, speaking of the firearm owner’s identification card system. “That’s exactly what I relayed when I signed that letter.”
“I’m consistent about gun safety as well,” he added. “I’ve been consistent the whole time.”
While the letter to Congress about gun safety showed Irvin wasn’t shy to weigh in on federal matters, he has tried to take a pass on taking a position on Roe v. Wade and the federal right to abortion.
At a news conference earlier this year, Irvin, who describes himself as “pro-life,” was asked whether the federal government should pass a law to ban abortions. He quickly dismissed the question by saying, “I’m running for governor in the state of Illinois. I’m not talking about what the federal government’s going to do.” Asked if the state’s governor should play a role in influencing national politics, Irvin did not answer.
As Irvin attempts to win the GOP nomination for governor, he has been sharply critical of Pritzker and regularly contends Pritzker has displayed a lack of leadership in dealing with the state’s issues. But as mayor, Irvin repeatedly praised the Democratic governor, including calling Pritzker “a great friend, a great leader who has guided our state with professionalism” at a vaccination event in Aurora in March of last year.
Irvin later said of his comments that since a governor is relied upon “for so many resources in your city,” that “it’s probably good to be polite.”
Irvin also has posted on social media about Mayor Lori Lightfoot, congratulating her on her “historic inauguration” and offered similar congratulations to President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris on their “historic election and empowering inauguration ceremony.”
Much of the scrutiny Irvin has received has been about his credentials as a Republican in seeking the GOP nomination, particularly since he pulled Democratic primary ballots in 2014, 2016 and 2020.
But there is an early example of Irvin trying to be all things to everyone. It came in his successful 2017 run for the nonpartisan position of mayor of Aurora, through a pair of near identically designed mailings — one sent to Democrats and another sent to Republican households.
Each mailer is labeled, “The Choice is Yours” with the words appearing atop a donkey representing Democrats and an elephant representing Republicans.
In the mailer sent to Republicans, an arrow points to the donkey with the words, “Rick Guzman is endorsed by entrenched Chicago Democrats like Dick Durbin.” The arrow pointing to the elephant says, “Richard C. Irvin is endorsed by Local Elected Officials who actually have a stake in Aurora’s future.”
The reverse side touts GOP endorsements he received and says, “The reasons are clear. Richard C. Irvin has a solid conservative record.”
But in the mailer that went to Democrats, the arrow pointing to the elephant warns Guzman, a former mayoral chief of staff, is “endorsed by Tea Party Republicans.” Under the donkey arrow appear the words: “Richard C. Irvin is endorsed by Local Elected Officials who actually have a stake in Aurora’s future.”
On the opposite side, appears a list of Democratic elected officials and groups supporting him for mayor — but there was no mention of his “solid conservative record.”
Irvin has said he pulled Democratic primary ballots in the past to vote for Democrats who shared his vision for the city. In the 2020 Democratic primary, there were two candidates who received contributions from Irvin who faced competition, state Rep. Barbara Hernandez of Aurora and Greg Elsbree, an unsuccessful candidate for Kane County Board chair. Hernandez got $750 and Elsbree got $250, state campaign finance records show.
Overall, Irvin has made nearly $1.2 million in contributions since 2005 with more than $178,000 in loans to his mayoral campaigns and another $950,000 transferred to candidates for comptroller, secretary of state and attorney general who are running on his statewide slate backed by Griffin and his money. Much of the rest went to Republican candidates and groups.
But he has given more than $10,000 to Democrats since 2008, records show, with $4,950 going to his former law partner Brittany Pedersen’s bids for judge. Other contributions to Democrats from Irvin include $200 to former state Rep. Ken Dunkin, a Chicago Democrat who aligned himself with Rauner, $500 to state Rep. Stefanie Kifowit of Oswego in 2012 and $1,250 to state Sen. Karina Villa of West Chicago in 2018 and 2019.
Irvin has flatly refused to answer when asked if he voted for Donald Trump in 2016 and 2020 or whether he thinks the 2020 election was stolen as Trump baselessly claims. Meanwhile, he accuses his rivals of having backed Biden and President Barack Obama. After WTTW surfaced text messages in which Irvin called Trump an “idiot” and a “bigoted racist,” Irvin has said only that in general elections, he votes Republican.
In an appearance at Progressive Baptist Church in Aurora on Feb. 9, 2020, to commemorate Martin Luther King Day, Irvin made comments that raised questions by some conservatives about whether he voted for Obama for president.
“I don’t know if my grandfather or grandmother or my slave-born great-grandfather could have ever imagined that our vote, our Black vote, would make such a difference in this country that (it) would elect a Black man to the presidency in 2008 when Barack Obama made history,” Irvin said.
But on Saturday, Irvin said he was speaking metaphorically as a Black leader on that day and that he did not vote for Obama.
“That means it’s important to vote and that I want everyone in the Black community to vote,” he said. “And I’m going to be asking that same community to vote for me as governor of this state.”
Tribune reporter Ray Long contributed.
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