Mayor Richard Irvin: The GOP’s Man of Mystery and Opportunity
As the Republican establishment’s anointed candidate for governor, Aurora Mayor Richard Irvin is something of a man of mystery in everything from his policy positions to his party affiliation.
“I was impressed with him, but I guess I thought he was a Democrat,” former Gov. Jim Edgar told the Quad City Times about meeting Irvin some years ago. “And I think that’s going to be the major challenge for him is to convince Republicans that he’s a Republican.”
Some party leaders are already convinced. Irvin’s been endorsed by House Minority Leader Jim Durkin, former downstate GOP Rep. John Shimkus and former state GOP chair Tim Schneider.
Just as important, major Republican donors are also convinced.
Horse racing mogul Craig Duchossois and Winnetka businessman James Frank have each chipped in $250,000. So have Delaware-based Braveheart Investments and north suburban McLean-Fogg Co. Real estate billionaire Sam Zell and cosmetics heir Ron Gidwitz cut checks for $100,000 each.
However, the man with the deepest pockets of all is still on the sidelines. Hedge fund billionaire Ken Griffin, Illinois’ richest man and an avowed foe of Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker, has yet to back anyone. In a statement, Griffin said he was “excited” that Irvin jumped in and looked forward to meeting him.
No one can deny that Irvin’s personal story is both inspiring and impressive.
He was born to a 16-year old single mother and grew up in public housing. After graduation from East Aurora High, he joined the Army and served in the Gulf War. He graduated from Robert Morris College and earned a law degree from Northern Illinois University. He worked as an assistant state’s attorney in Cook County and Kane County before opening his own law office. But he always had his eye on politics.
In 2007, Irvin won election as Alderman-At-Large on the Aurora City Council, after first reaching for higher office and falling short. Two years earlier, in 2005, Irvin ran for mayor and lost to Democrat Tom Weisner who also had the support of then-Senator Barack Obama. In 2009, Irvin challenged Weisner again. Again, he was defeated.
In 2017, after a full ten years on the City Council, Irvin again ran for mayor a third time.
Weisner, stricken with cancer, had resigned so the race was for an open seat. Four candidates, including Irvin, were on the ballot in the nonpartisan primary but the acknowledged favorite was Democrat State Rep. Linda Chapa LaVia.
“We had the most money, the most organizational support,” said Nick Daggers, a Democratic consultant who ran Chapa LaVia’s campaign. “But from the polling it was very clear that if anybody went negative with her, on her connection to (House Speaker Mike Madigan), it would implode her campaign. And that’s what everybody did the last 14 days of the election. Just everybody aimed their guns at us. From a messaging perspective, we were really trapped in a box. We were one of the first test cases on how successful that message could be if delivered correctly.”
Chapa LaVia, a Hispanic Democrat running in a city where Hispanics make up a majority of the population and Democrats generally rule the roost, came in third. Irvin and Richard Guzman advanced to the general election. In an incredibly tight runoff, Irvin beat Guzman, 7,574 to 7,404…a margin of 170 votes. How did he do it?
“He grew up in the area. Went to school here. And he really had people who came out and did the groundwork,” said Aurora Ald. Sherman Jenkins. “The first time he ran, he was a young guy. The second time, he came in second. What they wanted him to do is get some experience. By then, he had 10 years of experience on the City Council. Then people felt like, he’s ready.” Irvin was re-elected mayor with 55 percent of the vote in 2021.
Jenkins, who was formerly Aurora’s economic development director, said Irvin’s major accomplishment as mayor has been attracting business and jobs to Aurora.
“The example was when we were working to bring in the Chicago Premium Outlet Mall and you always have developers who want to meet the mayor. Sit down, look him in the eye,” said Jenkins. “Previous mayors would put it off. Eventually they would meet with them. But Richard was enthusiastic. Yeah, let’s go. Let’s go to their place. Aggressive. Developers want to know you want them there. That’s always a plus.”
Irvin’ campaign faces a two-tier hurdle to reach the governorship and neither hurdle is easy. First, he has to win the Republican primary in a party filled with die-hard conservatives, many of whom value ideological purity over electability.
So, once again: Is Irvin a Republican? He was twice (in 2006 and 2008) elected as a Republican precinct committeeman in DuPage County. And as far back as 2003, according to the Chicago Tribune, while preparing for the 2005 Aurora mayor’s race, “Irvin said he is a Republican who has reached out across Aurora to get Democrats and independents involved in his campaign.” That’s pretty much an echo of his mission in the gubernatorial race. Detractors point out that Irvin also pulled Democratic primary ballots in 2014, 2016, and 2020.
“Richard Irvin is whatever is most convenient for him. That’s really where it lies,” said Daggers. “I don’t think he feels super strong one way or another. I think he gauged an opportunity, and he took it. That's what it’s about. I think the primary is going to be tough for him but if he’s the only one that is going to have serious money, Pritzker-type money, it’s going to be tough to compete with that. There’s lots of unknowns. If it’s a race where Trump decides to get involved, that could blow up a primary one way or another.”
Former Republican state chairman Pat Brady believes Irvin’s got a lot of explaining to do.
“I like Richard. He’s a nice guy. But getting through a Republican primary where you’ve got 700,000 people voting on the premise that you’re the candidate the billionaires have chosen, well that’s a tough argument with Republican voters. They don’t like to be told what to do. He’s got to overcome that. And he has to explain why he would have voted for Hillary Clinton or Joe Biden and not for Trump. I’ve never been a big Trumpie, but the reality is, he’s still fairly popular in the Republican Party,” said Brady.
Did Irvin vote for Trump? Where does he stand on abortion? Or the Texas law greatly restricting abortion that’s now before the Supreme Court? It seems no one knows.
Critics also point to Irvin’s apparent endorsement of Gov. Pritzker’s Covid-19 abatement measures, a sore spot with many conservatives, as well as his endorsement of Black Lives Matter. At least prior to his campaign kickoff video in which Irvin declared “all lives matter.”
Brady says he’s serving as an “informal adviser” to another GOP candidate for governor, businessman Gary Rabine of Bull Valley. Also running are State Sen. Darren Bailey of Xenia; businessman Jesse Sullivan of Petersburg; and former state senator Paul Schimpf of Waterloo.
It’s widely believed that Griffin failed to financially back any of the four GOP hopefuls who entered the race before Irvin because Griffin unconvinced that any of them can take down Pritzker.
“None of them have a hope in hell of winning a general election. And I would suspect Griffin knows this and would not give these people any money,” said Chris Mooney, an expert of Illinois politics at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “So he’s hoping for somebody else who can potentially win statewide. He’s waiting, hoping, keeping his powder dry.”
Irvin’s primary strategy is to clean up in Chicago’s suburbs, where suburban women are thought to be particularly concerned about crime, while the other four candidates divide the downstate vote.
Should Irvin manage to sneak through the primary, he’d face Pritzker and his seemingly bottomless bag campaign money in November.
Pritzker spent a record-setting $171 million to secure his 2018 victory. Republicans always face an uphill fight in statewide elections, but Irvin’s chances may actually be better if he can change the electoral math for Republicans.
“I think he is a candidate who appeals not just to Republicans, and I think this is why you see the terrified look on the faces of the Pritzker people who are working overtime to beat this guy,” said an adviser to Irvin’s campaign. “He’s not just a guy who appeals to Republicans but to independents and some Democrats. Particularly in a state where crime is out of control and JB has gone super hard left. I think this is a guy who’s got a great story, a great record and at the end of the day it’s going to be about the two records.”
When Richard Irvin was elected Aurora’s mayor, he became the first black man to hold that office. As the Republican gubernatorial candidate, he would be the first black man to head a major party’s statewide ticket in Illinois. And if elected governor…well, you know the rest.
That eventuality alone raises the tantalizing, if unstated, possibility of Irvin breaking the Democrats’ near-complete stronghold on black voters in Illinois. The prospect of Irvin earning a substantial portion of the black vote, even if short of a majority, would radically change the electoral math for Republican victory in Illinois.
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