Dems lash Trump

Sen. Dick Durbin and South Bend Mayor Mayor Pete Buttigieg rally base on Democrat Day at State Fair

South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg addresses Illinois Democrats in Springfield Thursday. (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg addresses Illinois Democrats in Springfield Thursday. (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

By Ted Cox

SPRINGFIELD — U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin likes to tell stories to illustrate political points, but the story he told at the Democrat Day rally in Springfield Thursday gave the audience pause.

Durbin said that, for the first time in his experience, people have been pulling him aside at public appearances and asking him directly, "Are we going to be OK?"

To Durbin, that indicated the depth of the anxiety people share about President Donald Trump.

Durbin said he has faith and trust in the American people and American democracy, but he granted that Trump's excesses — and the unwavering support he has from a minority of U.S. citizens — present a problem.

"We're not going to win over the 30 percent. They're gone, folks," Durbin said. "They'll go right over the cliff if he leads them that way."

But, in rallying what he said were 3,000 Democratic loyalists at the Crown Plaza Hotel in Springfield at a breakfast rally ahead of Democrat Day at the State Fair, he maintained a faith in American democracy while attacking Trump.

Durbin was joined in that by the man he introduced, keynote speaker South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, of Indiana, pinch-hitting for Joe Biden, the former vice president. Biden was scheduled to appear, but Durbin said he came down with laryngitis last weekend, "and when Joe Biden can't talk, that's a story."

—Sen. Dick Durbin says he has to reassure constituents that things will be OK given the turbulence of the Trump administration. (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

—Sen. Dick Durbin says he has to reassure constituents that things will be OK given the turbulence of the Trump administration. (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

According to Durbin, U.S. Rep. Cheri Bustos, of Rock Island, suggested Buttigieg as an eleventh-hour replacement. Little-known, but on the rise in party politics, having run for the national Democratic chairmanship last year, Buttigieg didn't disappoint.

"I regret that I am not Vice President Biden, for many reasons," Buttigieg said in introduction. He soon joined Durbin in attacks on Trump.

He compared the state of the nation to "one of those weird dreams you have when you eat the wrong kind of food at night," adding, "The president of the United States of America is basically a disgraced game-show host."

He granted that the support Republicans have shown for Trump is problematic, but called Democrats to action by saying, "While the other side was losing its mind, ours was losing its voice."

Buttigieg, a 36-year-old who ran for mayor and won in 2011, winning re-election in 2015 with 80 percent of the vote, said South Bend faced many of the same challenges as the nation as a whole, especially forgotten small towns.

"We were a company town that lost our company — Studebaker," the auto manufacturer, he said. But he rejected a return to the old ways with a jab at Trump's motto.

"I didn't go around saying, 'We're going to bring back Studebaker jobs — make South Bend great again,'" he said. Instead, he sought new solutions in civic technology and took South Bend from what Newsweek magazine labeled one of America's 10 dying communities to revive population growth and local investment.

Buttigieg said it took a joint effort by the community as a whole, and he rejected Trump's boasts that he and he alone knows how to fix complex problems like jobs, trade, and economic growth.

"Don't trust anybody who says, 'I alone can fix it,'" Buttigieg said, adding a barnyard epithet to pound the point home.

He said the bias and racism Trump has projected threatened him as a gay man and many other Americans who deserve fair treatment — not because of their race or sexual orientation, but because they're people.

"This isn't academic to me. It's personal. It's existential," he said. "Politics is real life to me. Not because I'm a politician, but because I'm an American."

He urged his fellow Democrats to embrace that message, saying, "I don't have the luxury of pessimism. None of us has the luxury of pessimism today."

Durbin later said he expected Democrats to field a strong challenge to Trump in two years. "This president has lowered the bar," he said. "He has buried the bar."

But Durbin and Buttigieg and the rest of the elected officials and candidates who addressed the Illinois Democratic County Chairs' Association said first came the election this fall.

"We're working very hard to change Washington so that there's a check and a balance on President Trump's excesses and extremes," Durbin said. 

Saying the president "has a direct impact on Illinois," Durbin added afterward that he fully expected Trump to influence the statewide midterm election Nov. 6.

He also dragged Gov. Bruce Rauner into it, charging him with adopting the same divide-and-conquer strategy that worked in 2016 for Trump nationwide. "It infuriates me for any politician to try to divide the people of Illinois," he said. "We're one state, and when we're together we're the strongest."

Durbin called Buttigieg "the next generation of leadership in the Democratic Party."