Several Illinois lawmakers are joining a nationwide effort to bring more conservative politics to state legislatures.
The Illinois Freedom Caucus, modeled after the House Freedom Caucus in Congress, is made up of some of the most conservative voices in Illinois politics and is chaired by Rep. Chris Miller, R-Oakland. Other members include Rep. Brad Halbrook, R-Shelbyville; Rep. Dan Caulkins, R-Decatur; Rep. Blaine WiIhour, R-Beecher City; and Rep. Adam Niemerg, R-Deiterich.
"Democrats and, from time to time, squishy Republicans have been in charge for so long I think it's time to try something different," said Andrew Roth, president of the State Freedom Caucus Network, at a launch event Thursday.
Roth and the nationwide network have spent the past several months setting up state-level Freedom Caucuses around the South and Midwest. Roth said he has established groups in Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina and Nevada since the beginning of the year.
Illinois is fifth state in the nation to start a caucus associated with the State Freedom Caucus Network. Some other states have similarly named conservative groups, such as the unaffiliated Texas Freedom Caucus, which has members from the Texas legislature.
Miller said part of the inspiration for the group's formation is to combat what he said are problems with the Democratic majority's model of governing, which he characterized as relying on "more taxes, more taxes, more borrowing, more government."
"As we've watched this unravel, we've seen less morals, less family values and the ultimate result of that has been less freedom," said Miller.
Miller's wife, U.S. Rep. Mary Miller, a Republican who represents East-central and southern Illinois, is a member of the House Freedom Caucus. Former President Donald Trump endorsed her in the primary race against fellow Republican Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Taylorville.
The Millers have drawn controversy in the past, though the most recent came when St. Louis TV station KSDK reported that a Mary Miller campaign staff volunteer pleaded guilty to soliciting sex from a young boy in 2005.
Neither of the Millers responded to State Journal-Register calls for comment.
The federal House Freedom Caucus is closely associated with the Tea Party movement and the right-wing of American politics, with past chairmen including Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan and former North Carolina Rep. Mark Meadows, who was later Trump's chief of staff.
Members of the Illinois Freedom Caucus said that they hope the initiative will be a unifying force for the Republican Party in Illinois, though several were critical of some in the party.
"The Republican Party quite frankly has not given the people of Illinois a compelling reason to vote Republican," said Wilhour.
Niemerg said the group will ideally serve as a support structure for members of the General Assembly who feel they have to compromise their values while in office.
"We want to be there to help those folks," said Niemerg.
Niemerg added that he hopes having a group representing Illinois conservatives strengthens the movement and the Republican caucus overall.
Halbrook said to expect the group to "pull out all the stops legislatively, procedurally and politically" in order to advance their agenda.
The five men are closely associated with one another and are known for taking vocal stances on some social issues. In legislative circles, the group is sometimes informally referred to as the "Eastern Bloc," because they represent a large portion of East-central Illinois.
All five were removed from the House of Representatives floor at some point during the most recent legislative session for refusing to wear a mask, in violation of House rules. Wilhour filed a lawsuit against House Speaker Emanuel "Chris" Welch, D-Hillside over the incident.
The group also regularly shares campaign funds, moving money between campaign committees as well as to a political organization called Restore Illinois PAC, which is chaired by Wilhour. Sen. Darren Bailey, R-Xenia, who is running for the Republican gubernatorial nomination, also is associated with Restore Illinois PAC and the Eastern Bloc, though he did not come out as a member of the Illinois Freedom Caucus.
While having a formal group for this brand of conservative politics is new to Illinois, caucuses based on identity or ideology are not.
The Illinois Legislative Black Caucus and its associated foundation is a group made up of 31 Black members of the legislature which was founded in 1968, according to the group's website. The group has been behind some major legislation, including supporting and advocating for a major criminal justice reform package in 2021.
Representing almost the reverse of the Freedom Caucus, the Illinois legislature saw in 2019 the formation of the House Progressive Caucus, a group of progressive lawmakers who have advocated for marijuana legalization among other things.
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