SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (NEXSTAR) — State senator Darren Bailey (R-Louisville) made a name for himself challenging Governor Pritzker’s pandemic powers in court, rallying angry crowds against Coronavirus capacity limits, and refusing to wear a mask on the House floor.
“I heard about him when he filed the suit,” James Hunt of Rochester said. “That impressed me. That took guts.”
During a campaign stop in Springfield on Tuesday, the rabble rouser pushed to parlay his pandemic-induced publicity into momentum for a primary campaign to run for governor himself.
Sandy Dragoo, a woman from Petersburg, said she first met Bailey at a protest at the Capitol.
“I don’t see too many other candidates out working as hard as he does,” Dragoo said. “I think there’s a tide turning. I think the people are ready to buck Chicago because they always say, ‘Well, how are you going to beat Chicago?'”
In a recent interview after announcing his campaign for re-election, Pritzker painted his critics as a vocal minority “who wanted to do nothing” to stop the spread of the Coronavirus.
In his stump speech, Bailey painted the Democratic governor as out of touch with the working class. His allies, state representatives Dan Caulkins (R-Decatur) and Blaine Wilhour (R-Beecher City), told the crowd they were “suffering under tyranny” from the “blatant hypocrisy of the political class.”
“Billionaires like J.B. Pritzker simply cannot relate to the struggles of working Illinoisans and taxpayers like you and I,” Bailey told a crowd of approximately 50 supporters. “He doesn’t understand that the damage that his lockdowns had did to small businesses.”
James Meister, a disabled Army veteran who lives on a fixed income, said he was drawn to Bailey’s message and fears how rising inflation could make it harder for him to put food on the table.
“We’re starving to death because the prices of food and supplies is all going up and we can’t afford it,” Meister said. “When we’re disabled, they won’t even let us work so that we can make a little money without losing everything.”
Bailey, a farmer who has collected millions of dollars in government subsidies, has called for an abrupt end to regular and expanded unemployment benefits for hundreds of thousands of jobless Illinoisans, describing the benefits as “free stuff,” “handouts,” and “socialism.”
“Put a stop to everything. Make everyone re-apply,” Bailey said in a July 8th Facebook post. “Give them a two-week notice, whatever that is. Make everyone re-apply and get out and get a job. There’s no reason in the world that anyone should be sitting at home drawing unemployment.”
Throughout the pandemic, Bailey has promoted the importance of individual responsibility over collective action and personal freedoms over government mandates. What advice would he give responsible individuals about how they could best protect themselves and others during the pandemic?
“I think the one thing that people need to do is understand the constitutional basis of freedom that this country stands on: the Constitution,” Bailey answered, avoiding any reference to vaccines.
Publicly available data posted on the Illinois Department of Public Health’s website says that 97.7% of people who died due to COVID-19 this year were unvaccinated. Asked how he would respond to that data if it came across his desk as governor, Bailey dismissed the readily available numbers as untrustworthy, without offering any evidence or explanation.
“We asked for the proof,” Bailey said. “We want to see it. Where’s this coming from? Where’s this going? And they never present it. So, my facts, your facts, my data, your data.”
Dr. Ngozi Ezike, the state’s public health director, explained that the data comes from comparing national CDC data with local public health data that tracks infections, vaccinations, hospitalizations and deaths.
“We are clearly seeing that the places where the numbers are growing fast are the places that have the lowest vaccination rates,” Ezike said. “There’s a direct correlation that we’re seeing: vaccination rates versus rising cases and hospitalization. So we are seeing that the vaccines, in fact, do work. And that’s why we want to get everyone vaccinated.”
“People are hungry for the truth,” Bailey said. He said that’s why he drew a loyal following on social media, because he is, “Standing up, telling the truth to the people, communicating.”
“Our Facebook has become popular,” Bailey said. “I stood up, I drew the line. Isn’t that why we’re a country here? Because someone decided to stand up and say, ‘I’ve had enough.'”
Would he tell people the truth about how effective the vaccine has been? Would he tell them that the world’s leading economists believe more businesses would open faster and the economy would recover more quickly if more people were vaccinated?
“I think if businesses… people… we have…” Bailey stammered before pivoting to attack mode. “Governor Pritzker has destroyed our economy,” he claimed.
Would Bailey encourage his supporters to get vaccinated?
“That’s up to the people to decide,” he said. “That is up to the people.”
Is Bailey, a candidate seeking the highest elected office in the state, vaccinated against a deadly virus?
“Why should I answer that?” he shot back.
The nation’s top elected officials, including prominent Republicans, have recently increased public calls for people to get the vaccine to avoid more economic losses.
“These shots need to get in everybody’s arms as rapidly as possible or we’re going to be back in a situation in the fall that we don’t yearn for — that we went through last year,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said earlier this month. “This is not complicated.”
“So, if I’m vaccinated, that’s good? And if I’m not, that’s bad? No, no, that’s not right,” Bailey retorted, again refusing to say if he was vaccinated.
Last Thursday, at the Lake County Republican Federation Spring Gala in Wheeling, Illinois, Bailey told a room full of supporters that he was not vaccinated, according to sources who were in the room. His campaign would not answer whether or not he has been vaccinated in the days since then and said that was supposed to be a closed event.
“We have a vaccine that can literally save lives,” Ezike said. “Every death that we’re seeing now is literally a vaccine preventable death. And that’s a tragedy.”
While Bailey was hemming and hawing about vaccines and questioning data that shows how effective they are at preventing death and hospitalization, prayer groups, churches, and pastors from the area were circulating urgent messages on Facebook asking for prayers for Bailey’s brother-in-law, Mitch Stortzum. At least five separate posts claimed Stortzum, the younger brother of Bailey’s wife Cindy, was placed on a ventilator and was transferred out of state under a medically induced coma due to COVID-19. The Stortzum family could not be reached for comment, but the posts were made by people who are in close personal contact with the family.
“He’s a strong Christian man, and we have to have strong Christian values in this state,” Greenfield native Dan Armold said about Bailey. “We don’t have that right now. It’s a mess.”
Bailey, who supports government restrictions on abortion, said when it comes to vaccinations and Coronavirus restrictions, “A government cannot and should never tell its people how to live, how to behave, what to do.”
When a reporter asked Bailey how he squares that comment with speed limit laws that were intended to keep people safe, he seemed to suggest those laws were merely “advice.”
“Speed limit laws, you know, that’s, that’s an advice, that’s a law. You drive the speed limit, or you speed, or you drive slower. It is up to government, it is up to the Illinois Department of Public Health, to best advise what they think is best. It is up to the American people to decide on their own if they’re going to go with that advice or not. It’s that simple.”
Bailey framed the pandemic era government mandates and public health limits on crowd sizes as an existential threat to the survival of the country.
“How does our constitutional republic survive if people can’t be free and make their own decisions?” he asked his supporters.
“We’ve been warned by our founding fathers to be diligent, to be ready to stand up against a government that would come and usurp our freedoms, and that is exactly what is taking place today,” Bailey said to his Facebook followers. “Please, be diligent, be ready. Be ready to put your neck on the line.”
At the end of the rally on Tuesday, a man took the microphone from Bailey and answered his call to action.
The man identified himself as Terry Adams, a former corrections officer for the state. He shouted that the country was divided, like it was during the Civil War and when “the British came over here.”
Before the event, the same man who was overheard discussing the whereabouts of ‘Q,’ the mysterious founder of the Q-Anon internet group with a woman at Bailey’s campaign table.
“If he were real, he would be out there,” the woman said.
“Have faith,” Adams told her. “You’ve got to have faith.”
After shaking Bailey’s hand and greeting him at the platform, Adams attempted to recruit the crowd of Bailey’s supports to join his private militia.
“We have an 8-million strong army that is an untrained militia,” Adams said, beating the metal microphone against his forehead. “My plan: all we need is a million, over a million legal gun owners.”
Bailey smiled and nodded his head as he watched the man speak from a few feet away. His campaign later sought to distance themselves from him and claimed they had no idea who he was.
Adams described a vision of hundreds of extra-judicial platoons of armed militia who would patrol the streets of major American cities in groups of four to prevent street crime.
“I want to stop all the killing in all these cities,” he said. “It is senseless.”
“Who’s gonna stand up with me? Who?” he bellowed. “Who among us is gonna stand up?”
Parents in the crowd started to disperse and shepherd their children away from the ranting man.
“That’s not what I’m looking for,” he grumbled as a confused crowd started to tune him out.