ORLAND PARK - Next Tuesday's mayoral race in southwest suburban Orland Park has become Ground Zero in Illinois' April 4th municipal elections with a campaign that pits a longtime political insider against a local government reform challenger.
Businessman Keith Pekau's feisty challenge of longtime Mayor Dan McLaughlin has drawn the attention of politicians at the national level and hundreds of thousands of dollars from outside funders.
Thursday, an email from U.S. Senator Dick Durbin endorsing Orland Park's incumbent Mayor McLaughlin hit village voters' inboxes. Earlier in the week, McLaughlin was hailed in a letter from village trustee Jim Dodge, who challenged the late Judy Baar-Topinka in the 2010 State Comptroller Republican primary.
"In Illinois many municipalities are in financial crisis, and have seen their credit and bond ratings tumble," Durbin's letter says. "This is not the case in Orland Park. Under Dan’s leadership, the Village has operated with a balanced budget for 24 straight years and a “AA+ Credit Rating” – making your community one of the most financially sound municipalities in Illinois, with little debt.
"Dan has never lost sight of the special responsibility he has as mayor to do more with less and to live within the means taxpayers are already providing."
Durbin's letter fails to mention McLaughlin's recent triple salary boost to $150,000 annually, an issue that conservative talk show host Dan Proft's Liberty Principles PAC emphasizes in attack ads running continually on the area's major cable networks.
Those outsider funds reaching nearly $150,000 on their own are a sticking point for McLaughlin's "First Orland Party" slate, whose mailers critical of challenger Keith Pekau point to Proft, associate Brian Timpone, "fake news" and the Koch Brothers.
Trustee Jim Dodge's letter emphasized his support for the Democrat mayor and how they've worked together in a bi-partisan way.
"As the former Republican Township Committeeman and a Republican candidate for State Comptroller you might wonder why I choose to work with Dan...We don't focus on partisan labels - his or mine - in offices that have been non-partisan since 1892, when Orland was founded.
Dodge says the threat of outside takeover is a serious one - despite Durbin's intervention on McLaughlin's behalf.
"Dan [McLaughlin] and I both stand up to outside political influences who want to take over Orland Park for their selfish purposes. Trust me, the threat is very real," he writes after listing what he considers the board's financial accomplishments.
Challenger Pekau asserted in a videotaped speech with the Crystal Tree subdivision homeowners that the mayor intends to retire shortly and the salary hike was intended to boost his pension. The landscaper told the homeowners that if elected, he will refuse municipal benefits and work to reduce the mayor's salary back down to a more reasonable level.
In a town that leaned towards Donald Trump last fall, Orland Park will be a race to watch next Tuesday.