SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (NEXSTAR) — Invoking the dream of his formerly enslaved great-grandfather, Richard Irvin, the mayor of Illinois’ second largest city, jumped into the Illinois Republican primary race for Governor on Martin Luther King Day.
“Richard Baxter Irvin was born a slave, but he dreamed of being free,” Irvin said in a campaign launch video. “I don’t just share the name Richard Irvin,” he said. “I share his dream of what Illinois could be: where a growing economy provides ladders of opportunity for anyone willing to work; where families are safe; where kids are educated, not indoctrinated.”
Before he was elected as the mayor of Aurora in 2017, Irvin fought as an Army soldier in the Gulf War, returned home and graduated from law school at Northern Illinois University, went on to work as a prosecutor in the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office, and eventually became a “community prosecutor” in his hometown.
“I grew up in Section Eight public housing in Aurora where I now serve as mayor,” Irvin said in his campaign video. “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.”
He ran for mayor in 2005 and 2009, and lost both races. Former House Republican Leader Tom Cross endorsed him at the time. Irvin later became a local precinct committeeman in the Republican party. However, Kane County election records show Irvin pulled a ballot to vote in recent Democratic primary contests in 2014, 2016, and 2020, including both presidential races where Donald Trump was on the ballot.
Irvin’s voting history raised questions about his political allegiances and created an opening for his GOP opponents to attack him. State senator Darren Bailey (R-Louisville) labeled him as a “career Democrat.” Gary Rabine (R-Bull Valley) sarcastically ‘welcomed’ Irvin to the Illinois Republican Party. Jesse Sullivan (R-Petersburg) said “the people of Illinois are sick of career politicians who’ve been given ample opportunities to fix our state.”
Illinois Republican Party chairman Don Tracy called on the candidates to play nice, and said he’d “enforce” Ronald Reagan’s so-called 11th Commandment, “Thou shalt not speak ill of a fellow Republican.”
Tracy also dismissed the attacks questioning Irvin’s conservative credentials.
“He’s definitely a Republican,” Tracy said on Monday morning at a Martin Luther King Day breakfast. “Up in that area, in Chicago in particular, people tend to pull Democrat ballots because that’s where the action is.”
“Just because people have voted in Democratic primaries before does not disqualify them from being Republicans or voting Republican,” Tracy said.
Irvin’s announcement also drew swift reaction from billionaire and Republican megadonor Ken Griffin, who has discussed plans to spend up to $300 million backing Republican candidates in Illinois in 2022.
“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 through an emailed statement from his spokesman at Citadel Strategies.
“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 said. “As Mayor of Aurora, he has successfully delivered on the issues Illinoisans care most about – strengthening the education system, improving public safety, creating economic opportunities and governing with integrity. I am excited that he has decided to join the race, and look forward to the opportunity to meet him and learn more about his ideas in the weeks ahead.”
The timing of Irvin’s campaign launch on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day irked top Black leaders in Springfield. Senator Robert Peters (D-Chicago), and Representatives Kam Buckner (D-Chicago) and Sonya Harper (D-Chicago) slammed the “shallow opportunism” of the Republican party.
“The co-opting of a day of great significance to justify a political platform that from its onset seeks to strip protections from working families across Illinois, minimizes the struggles of the past, and rolls back the progress that we’ve made to expand rights is highly disappointing,” the chairs of the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus said in a press release.
On Irvin’s campaign website, he claims he called in the national guard to respond to looting in the aftermath of protests over the murder of George Floyd. However, a spokesman for the Illinois National Guard confirmed mayors do not have that authority, and would have to make any request through the governor’s office.
Governor Pritzker’s office declared states of emergency in several counties during the protests and looting incidents of the summer of 2020, and issued deployments of the national guard to assist local police departments in several cities, including Aurora. Calls to Irvin’s office in Aurora were not returned on Monday.
The next year, while he was running for re-election in Aurora in the spring of 2021, Irvin told a local news outlet, “I support Black Lives Matter strongly and passionately.”
This year, now that he’s running for governor in a Republican primary, Irvin repeated critics of the Black Lives Matter movement who often retort, “I believe All Lives Matter.”