This week’s Illinois primary elections sent some powerful signals about the political campaigns and issues of 2018. Governor Bruce Rauner, an anti-labor zealot who has taken a few vaguely moderate stances on social issues, almost lost his Republican primary reelection run to an anti-labor zealot who has taken no moderate stances on social issues. Meanwhile, billionaire liberal J.B. Pritzker, who was backed by most of the state’s Democratic establishment and who so far has spent $70 million on his gubernatorial bid, won the party’s nomination to take on Rauner, easily defeating progressives Daniel Biss and Chris Kennedy, who split the reform vote.
Congressman Dan Lipinski, a machine Democrat, narrowly defeated progressive Marie Newman, who said her insurgent run “put [Lipinski] on notice that we expect better for all of the people in our district.” But in a nearby Chicago district, progressive favorite Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, the veteran reformer who challenged Mayor Rahm Emanuel in 2015 and backed Senator Bernie Sanders’s presidential bid in 2016, easily secured the Democratic nomination for an open House seat. A progressive slate backed by Garcia and Chicago activists also prevailed in a number of Cook County contests where, according to Emma Tai, the executive director of the United Working Families organization (the Illinois branch of the national Working Families Party movement), “They took on big-money interests and the Democratic machine and they won.”
Overall, the results might fairly be described as “mixed.” Except on one issue.
In Cook County, the second-most-populous county in the United States, Chicago and suburban voters were asked: “Shall the State of Illinois legalize the cultivation, manufacture, distribution, testing, and sale of marijuana and marijuana products for recreational use by adults 21 and older subject to state regulation, taxation and local ordinance?”
The referendum was nonbinding, but the results from a county that has a bigger population than 27 American states, was resounding. With more people casting ballots on the marijuana referendum than the combined total that participated in the Democratic and Republican gubernatorial primaries, 63 percent said “yes” to legalization, while just 37 percent voted “no.”
Will Chicago and Cook County prod the state of Illinois to follow Colorado, Washington, Alaska, Nevada, Oregon, Massachusetts, Maine, Vermont, and California in legalizing recreational use of marijuana?
The signals are positive. Earlier this month, the Illinois Senate voted 37-13 to place a marijuana-legalization advisory referendum on the state’s November ballot. And newly minted Democratic gubernatorial candidate J.B. Pritzker is ready to run on the issue.
“Let’s also remember that a conversation about economic justice cannot happen without a conversation about criminal-justice reform. And we can begin by immediately removing at least one area of racial injustice in our criminal justice system,” he announced Tuesday night in his victory speech. “Let’s legalize, tax and regulate marijuana.”
Pritzker, Biss, and Kennedy all backed marijuana decriminalization and legalization strategies during the primary campaign—with Biss backers going so far as to display posters that read “CannaBISS.”
Pritzker spelled out his support for legalization early on, declaring, “There is an abundance of evidence that shows we can legalize marijuana in a safe way. It would have real benefits for Illinois, including reducing opioid overdoses and bringing in much needed revenue from taxation, all without increasing drug use in young people.”
“Most importantly,” Pritzker concluded, “legalizing marijuana is a step forward in reforming our broken criminal justice system. Criminalizing marijuana hasn’t made our communities safer. What it has done is disproportionately impact black and brown communities. There are way too many people who have gone to prison or are currently sitting in prison for marijuana related offenses. The criminalization of marijuana has never been and never will be enforced fairly and it’s time to bring that to an end.”
Pritzker is speaking the language of the future—in Illinois, and nationally.